Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Close - not clean - sweep


When "4-0" appears next to any series as the final result, it's easy to say the team with the goose egg didn't stand much of a chance in the series.

A short time ago, Pittsburgh completed a sweep against Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals, but it was far from an easy series victory.

Final scores can be misleading. The Penguins won Game 2, 7-4, and Game 3, 6-2. While they dictated much of the play in both games, goalie Cam Ward - whose ears will get even hotter as people discuss how he "gave the series away" - did just about everything he could to keep his team in each game.

Pundits will point out the soft goals he allowed to Bill Guerin to close Game 3 and the Max Talbot tally in Game 4, but from game to game, Ward was, in my opinion, Carolina's best player. Pittsburgh pummeled him with puck after puck and he made a number of incredible saves.

In the second period of Game 3, Ward stood tall and made 15 saves after a couple unlucky (per Carolina fans' perspective) bounces landed on Evgeni Malkin's stick that turned into a couple goals. Ward received little help from his teammates in the middle frame but still kept it from becoming a blowout. Then Sergei Samsonov scored early in the third and Ward again held the fort until Ruslan Fedotenko restored the two-goal lead with eight and a half minutes left.

An empty-net goal made it 5-2 and Ward gave up a soft, meaningless goal to Guerin with just over a minute left. By that point, I think Ward's spirits were crushed, as he'd made 34 saves in the game and 97 for the series up to that point, but was staring at a 3-0 deficit anyway.

In Game 2, Pittsburgh's first three leads each lasted less than two minutes, as Carolina bounced back for quick goals each time. After the first period, and the Hurricanes leading 3-2, the game was all Pittsburgh, which finished with a 42-28 shot advantage. Had Malkin not taken over a five-minute stretch that turned a 4-4 game into a 6-4 Penguins lead, Carolina might have won.

Ward wasn't tested as often in Game 4. He finished with 118 saves in four games. Yes, he did allow a softie or two, but he wasn't why Carolina lost. At some point, the Hurricanes had to help their goalie. They waited until Game 4 to try it, but their performance was too little, too late.

A more culpable icon is Eric Staal, who played his best game of the series by far in Game 4. But his Game 4 goal was his only one of the series, and the Hurricanes managed two goals or fewer in three of the games. Erik Cole's goalless stretch in the playoffs is over 30 games. Joe Corvo and Joni Pitkanen might as well have been wearing Atlanta sweaters for as much impact they had in the series.

As great as Ward has been for such a long stretch for Carolina, he cannot be asked to allow just one goal a night, every night, particularly against the potent Penguins, to win a game.

Of course, he wasn't battling just Pittsburgh's forwards. Marc-Andre Fleury was the best Penguin in Games 1 and 4, making 23 saves in the opener - including a number of startling stops - and topped it by stopping 30 of 31 shots in the closer, which was Carolina's best game overall.

The Hurricanes showed an ability to possess the puck in the attacking end and earn scoring opportunities against the Penguins. But rarely could they finish. And, given enough time, the Penguins can get to any goalie, and they got to Ward.

Carolina's desperation and energy were evident for much of Game 4 and really, Pittsburgh had trouble matching it. Malkin was a nonfactor and Sidney Crosby offensively was nearly as silent until making a nice play to set up Guerin's goal. The Hurricanes scored quickly for the second straight game but, also for the second straight game, failed to capitalize on the momentum and build the lead. The Penguins converted the chances they created, played a strong defensive game and got superb goaltending from Fleury.

Overall, Pittsburgh was the better team, getting clutch performances from both stars and role players, and that's why they're moving on. To pin the series loss on just Ward would be easy and incorrect. The game scores would've been much more lopsided if not for Ward's efforts.

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