Thus far, the conference semifinals have been anything but even and unless things change drastically, there will be a Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings re-match in the Stanley Cup final.
For the Penguins, their best players have stepped up and the dynamic duo of Evgeni Malkin (12 goals, 16 assists) and Sidney Crosby (14 G, 12 A) lead the playoffs scoring race by a comfortable margin.
"Sid and Geno, they bring their level and they make everybody better," said veteran Bill Guerin after the Penguins 6-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 3. "Everyone's talent level goes up. That's what they do for us."
Crosby had a goal and an assist in Game 3, while Malkin had two goals and an assist. The 22-year-old Malkin has managed to carry his dominant play from the regular season into the playoffs, a contrast from 2008.
After stepping up for the Penguins during a lengthy injury to Crosby (out 21 games with a sprained right ankle) in 2008, Malkin faded in the playoff spotlight. While he finished the 2008 playoffs with 10 goals 12 assists over 20 games, he only managed three points (1 G, 2 A) in the Cup final against Detroit.
"There is a lesson that goes into winning in the playoffs, you have to understand the intensity level, you have to understand how to take care of yourself, you have to understand game planning," said NHL on TSN's Pierre McGuire. "There is a compete factor that goes into winning in the playoffs, a lot of young players think they know how to compete, but it requires one or two years of experience before you really understand what it means. Another thing, to be fair Malkin was not 100 per cent last year, especially in the Stanley Cup final."
The extra year of experience looks to have made a difference and Crosby believes Malkin is better because he has learned how to move on from a bad game.
"He's probably just better off because of that, experience-wise, but actually the guys can take their game to a new level. He's able to do that and that's a huge boost for us," said Crosby to the Globe and Mail.
According to McGuire, both Crosby and Malkin are different players in 2009.
"They are both a year older chronologically but also a year better athletically and you can see they are prepared to take over games, where as a year ago in key times in situations they weren't prepared to take over anything," he explained.
Pittsburgh's attack grabs the majority of the headlines, but much of credit for the Penguins' current playoff success and commanding 3-0 series lead over the Hurricanes has to go to goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
"You can break Fleury's situation down to three key moments in the playoffs," said McGuire. "One was Game 2 against Philadelphia where he robbed Jeff Carter at a key time. Secondly, in the first three minutes of Game 7 in Washington where he stopped Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway with the score 0-0 and then Game 1 versus Carolina where with seconds to go he stopped Eric Staal. Even though Staal had an open net, Fleury made the save.
"It's about timely goaltending, that's the magic of great playoff goaltenders, they know how to come up with clutch saves at key times. I think a lot of it is Fleury working with Penguins' goalie coach Gilles Meloche. [Fleury] is much more refined, he has always a great athlete but he is much more refined than he was earlier in his career."
When the Eastern Conference Final began, Carolina looked to have a clear advantage in goal. Cam Ward had been sharp during the Hurricanes' wins over the New Jersey Devils in the opening round and the top-seeded Boston Bruins last round. The Eastern final has been another story and McGuire believes there is a simple explanation.
"It is fatigue. A seven game series with Jersey, a seven game series with Boston and he's playing against a team that has an elite offence, three centres deep in Malkin, Crosby and [Jordan] Staal," said McGuire. "He's constantly under attack and he is getting beat up high, blocker side a lot and that is fatigue.
"It's like boxing; all it takes is for your hands to drop down maybe two or three centimeters. He's also not moving nearly as efficiently as he was and that leads me to believe he might have some lower-body soreness or injury."
The Penguins have outscored the Hurricanes 16-8 in the series.