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OF COURSE, IT WOULD BE near impossible for the Penguins and their Eastern Conference finals opponent to top the thrilling seven-game series against Washington, but if there was a team that had been achieving the near impossible all postseason, it was the Carolina Hurricanes. In their first trip to the playoffs since winning the Cup in 2006, they had earned the moniker Cardiac Canes after stretching two of the top teams in the conference (New Jersey and Boston) to seven games and then beating each in heart-stopping fashion.
"Out of all the teams we've faced, this is probably the best team at knowing their game, playing their game," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said after Game 1. "They're very disciplined in how they play. That's how they've become resilient, and how they've come back in series."
That's why—despite winning the first game 3-2—the Penguins weren't about to lose their focus, which was on Carolina's leading scorer, Eric Staal. The 6' 4", 205-pound center was tied for third in the league with nine playoff goals going into the series, and his team would desperately need him to maintain his level of excellence. As remarkably well as the Hurricanes played when he found the back of the net (7-0), they were equally as poor when Staal was kept silent (1-6). Stopping him, then, would be a recipe for success.
Luckily for Pittsburgh, its roster included a player plenty familiar with the Carolina scorer: his younger brother Jordan. The Penguins' checking-line center, commissioned to shadow top lines all postseason, was assigned to face off against his sibling when the puck dropped in Pittsburgh for Game 1. Jordan won the first draw, and he got the better of his brother for the rest of the series, winning 19 of 34 face-offs over four games.
"He's cheating, that's why," Eric joked after going 5 for 14 against Jordan in Game 2.
But Jordan did more than just win the battles in the circles, he centered the line that kept Eric goalless for the first three games. Of course Jordan had plenty of help from an underrated Pittsburgh defense that had been strong all postseason. Shutdown pair Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi applied the pressure on Eric, limiting his chances, and the Penguins' forwards kept him in his zone all night.
"He's a really skilled player, but it's tough for him to do something without the puck and in his own defensive zone," Scuderi said. "By the time they got to our end, they had to make a change. [When you] make him play defense the whole night, it's hard to create offense."
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin exploded with six goals in the series, including three in Game 2 for his first career playoff hat trick. "He played like he was possessed," teammate Bill Guerin said after that game. The Hart Trophy finalist exposed the holes in Carolina's defense, and goalie Cam Ward, who had been superb until that point, couldn't solve Malkin, who led his team with 20 shots in these four games.
In Game 4 Eric Staal exploded out of the gate, finally scoring his first goal of the series 1:36 into the game, but it wouldn't be enough. The Hurricanes finished the playoffs 7-1 when their star center scored, but it was the one that mattered most.