PITTSBURGH — No team in the Eastern Conference playoffs has found a Crosby stopper, a defensively skilled forward who is effective game after game in slowing Sidney Crosby.
Carolina centre Matt Cullen showed flashes of being a shutdown defender against his star counterpart in Game 1, and the Hurricanes may need a near duplication of that performance if they’re to even the Eastern Conference final against the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight.
The Cullen line was largely responsible for limiting Crosby to no goals, an assist and two shots during Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory on Monday — about as close as the Penguins’ captain has come to being blanketed. Crosby was coming off an eight-goal series against Washington and leads NHL playoff scorers with 22 points.
“I thought the Cullen line played pretty good and I thought he made a good adjustment in making sure those guys stayed off the score sheet,” coach Paul Maurice said.
What the Hurricanes couldn’t prevent the Penguins from doing was winning. Since a team taking a 2-0 series lead goes on to win about 85 per cent of the time, the Hurricanes can’t realistically expect to win the series if they go back to Raleigh without a split in Pittsburgh.
Beating Pittsburgh usually means controlling Crosby.
“I don’t think you can really rest on that fact,” Cullen said Wednesday. “Obviously, he’s going to play well. For us, we know they have some unbelievable players on their side, especially up front. We just have to play our style of hockey.”
The Hurricanes’ ability to stay within their system was a major factor in them winning their last five Game 2s, almost a necessity given they also lost Game 1 in all five series.
“We’ll have to find a way to get Game 2,” Cullen said.
Crosby knows exactly how they’ll try to do that, too.
The Hurricanes never let up against the Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lines in Game 1, and Crosby is certain they will stay true to their system. Carolina wants to pressure the puck, stifle the Penguins’ offensive flow and keep the game in Pittsburgh’s zone.
“They don’t give you a whole lot,” Crosby said. “They have a great work ethic and depth, and they come at you every shift.”
The question is whether the Hurricanes will come at the Penguins with two of their most physical players, injured forwards Tuomo Ruutu (right ankle) and Erik Cole (knee). Neither player practised Wednesday as they rested after Game 1 injuries, and it appears likely both will miss Game 2.
Being without either or both players — Ruutu appears to be more seriously injured — would significantly thin the Hurricanes’ depth for what might be their most pivotal game of the season.