Penguins turn Eric Staal from Conn Smythe into finals flop

One of the most oft-repeated stats of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs is how very good the Carolina Hurricanes are when Eric Staal scores a goal (7-0) vs. how very unsuccessful they are when he does not (1-9).

So it's only natural that at this moment of soul-crushing disappointment for the Hurricanes -- facing elimination tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins -- Staal is dealing with a wave of criticism about his lack of production and practical invisibility in the Canes' three Eastern Conference finals losses.

His play in the previous two rounds, which was extraordinary at times, warrants the scrutiny and earned Staal the right to replace Alexander Ovechkin in the mano y mano series preview graphic against Sidney Crosby on Both Staal and Sid were contending for the Conn Smythe before the series began; Staal's six games without a goal have torpedoed both his chances for that award and his team's chances for the ultimate prize.

Not to pile on a guy who is seeing his exhilarating postseason run end with a discomforting whimper -- and a player whose stock on the Canadian Olympic roster is dropping like that of a U.S. automaker -- but it would also appear that his brother is nearly outplaying him in their series thus far.

From, here's the game-by-game breakdown for Eric Staal vs. Jordan Staal:

As you can see, the numbers are even in points and pretty much give the edge to Jordan in several categories: plus/minus, PIM, faceoffs (even after Eric moaned about his brother's tactics in Game 1), hits. Granted, they're playing different roles on different teams. But if you had seen how close these numbers were before the series started ... well, you'd probably expect the Penguins to be up 3-0.

So what's up with Eric Staal? He was asked that very question in the off-day media scrum, and told the AP:

The Hurricanes' top scorer insists his touch will return with time, even if his team is running out of it.

"I'm counted on to score goals and counted on to produce offensively," Staal said Monday. "I need to be a little bit better in my end of the rink and focus on that first, and everything else kind of takes care of itself. ... When those opportunities come, they're going to fall-I didn't score 40 goals for no reason. I know what I can do, and that's continuing to attack the net, and those things are going to happen."

The drought is his longest since he went seven games without a goal in November and December, a stretch that coincided with the firing of coach Peter Laviolette and the rehiring of Paul Maurice.

His brother said Eric Staal is "playing hard," but just not getting results.

Staal said something interesting in that quote about "my end of the rink." The fact is that Cam Ward is getting shelled in this series like never before, and on more than a few chances the Carolina defense hasn't been able to handle the Penguins' forwards going to the net. It's often said that some teams' offenses are sparked by what they do on defense; if the Hurricanes forwards have to concentrate too much energy and attention in their own zone, that's likely short-circuiting their own attack.

There's another factor at play here, of course, which is the Penguins' defense. As the AP points out, they're still an underrated group despite playing well against the Washington Capitals' offensive dynamos and, thus far, completely thwarting the Hurricanes big guns:

The Penguins' underrated defense has something to do with that, too. They've kept several of Carolina's top players off the scoresheet during the series, holding Whitney and Erik Cole to two assists apiece.

"Those three guys ... they use each other very well," Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi  said. "They don't rely so much on one-on-one talent, individual skill, as they do on the whole line. We're just trying to get on them quick, take away their time and space, and get moving into the offensive zone, because that's where our forwards are able to grind them down and make them play defense."

For players like Scuderi, Brooks Orpik and Mark Eaton, battling the Philadelphia and Flyers and then the Capitals certainly made them battle-ready for Carolina.

And if you're looking for reasons to believe the Pittsburgh Penguins could overcome the Detroit Red Wings should the two teams meet again for the Stanley Cup, the way the Pens' blue-line has performed throughout the postseason (and through injuries) is a primary one. They've been adept at taking away space from talented opponents in every series, and that's a key against a team like Detroit that can create so much off the rush.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves ... first the Penguins have to put Eric Staal out of his misery.

Unless, of course, he scores in Game 4. Which means we'll have a Game 5, playing the percentages.

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