Bedeviled by an old foe and new problems
The New Jersey Devils have done the Bruins few favors over the years, especially since the early '90s and particularly in the playoffs. In the postseason series of '94, '95, and '03, the Bruins lost three times, rubbed out by a collective 12-4, sometimes challenged even to get near the net, never mind find the back of it.
But by the looks of the Carolina Hurricanes, easily dismissed, 4-1, by the Bruins last night in the opening game of Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Devils did Boston a huge favor in Round 1. Though the Canes dispatched the Devils in seven games, they showed up on Causeway Street only 72 hours later looking warn, drained and with few answers for how to beat the Bruins in the best-of-seven series.
"I know I didn't generate enough," said Eric Staal, the prized center who all but had Boston captain Zdeno Chara painted on his sweater like a layer of Slovak shellack. "I've got to do more [when up against Chara] . . . use the back of the net more, find some space."
As predicted, every time the 6-foot-4-inch Staal popped over the boards, it was as if someone played the "F-Troop" charge to battle behind the Boston bench, springing the 6-9 Chara over the dasher and into action. The most breathing room Staal had all night came in the second period, not long after Canes coach Paul Maurice moved Erik Cole onto the big pivot's line in hopes that he could open some room. Sure enough, Cole pushed and wrestled with Chara at the side of the Boston net, leading to both of them being sent off for roughing minors.
For Chara, it was his first penalty of the postseason, after he did an amazing job of minding manners and controlling his temper in a four-game sweep of Montreal. For Staal, held without a point in four regular-season meetings, it had to be like getting a hip-to-toe cast stripped from his leg. Finally, Chara was in the box, looking like he hopped in the wrong MBTA subway, and Staal, in theory, had more room with the clubs skating four aside.
However, with Boston already with a 3-1 lead, the extra space to wheel only netted the Canes more frustration. Like the rest of the night, they weren't able to mount sustained pressure in the Boston end and they couldn't test Tim Thomas. All in all, just another two minutes of looking for passing lanes, shooting opportunities, open spaces to dump the puck.
In the end, nothing. Every door closed.
"For the first 30 minutes, we played pretty good," said Carolina winger Jussi Jokinen, who potted the Canes' only goal, tying the game at 1 with 18:50 gone in the first. "But they got the 2-1 lead, and I don't know why, but we panicked."
Marc Savard delivered his first of two goals at 7:21 of the second to provide the 2-1 lead. Only 5:20 later, Michael Ryder, after picking off an ill-advised pass through in the neutral zone, stepped in with the jawbreaker, a sniper's shot to the top right corner on Cam Ward.
Over and out. What little fight the Canes had in them, it drained out as Ryder's shot brought down the thunder from the sellout crowd of 17,565.
"We've got to be better than we were tonight," noted Staal. "They try to get ahead, and then force teams into mistakes. We know we can better."
Wisely, Maurice announced after the loss that he won't have his team skate today, a clear indication that he saw the toll in his team's legs, or between the ears.
Given their collective fatigue, best detected in the inability of their top two lines to connect on passes or generate scoring threats, rest could be best for the Canes. They might be wise to skip tomorrow's morning skate, too, allowing the tired troops the better part of 48 hours to find their legs.
Staal, held to two shots on net, had his best attempt with 5:48 gone in the third period when linemate Ray Whitney lasered a pass down the middle that set Staal up with a doorstep swat near the right post. Staal was shooting before the pass arrived, but Thomas moved with the pass and flashed a leg pad to snuff the attempt.
"He made a good save on me there on that backdoor play," said Staal. "He's a good goalie, but we've got to drive more pucks to the net."
It comes down to getting some rest, increasing their compete level, and find ways for Staal to get leverage or find room on Big Z.
"It's his size and reach," said Staal, asked what makes it so difficult to maneuver around the Boston strong man, who is one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy. "He's a big man."
It's hard, if not impossible, for wingers to establish a forechecking game around Chara and his partner, Aaron Ward. If Maurice can change lines quickly enough, he might be able to get Staal out there for the odd shift without Chara always picking through his lunch pail.
But right now it looks like Carolina's only chance of getting that little bit of an edge, if it means much, will have to wait for when the series shifts to Raleigh and the Canes can better dictate line matches and defensive pairings.
"We have to know that we can beat these guys," said Staal, the Canes now 0-5 against the Bruins in 2008-09. "We have to feel confident."
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.