The bluster shown by the Carolina Hurricanes in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs was reduced to a whimper by Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final.
Looking determined, if not driven, Crosby extended his point streak to six games with two assists as the Penguins completed a four-game series sweep over the Hurricanes with a 4-1 victory in Game 4 at the RBC Center on Tuesday.
Crosby and teammate Evgeni Malkin lead the post-season scoring race with 28 points apiece and proved too powerful a 1-2 punch, even for the defensively sound Hurricanes.
"Coming into the [post-season], these were the guys who scared us the most because of the way they played together," Penguins forward Bill Guerin said of the Hurricanes.
Maxime Talbot had one goal and two assists, while Ruslan Fedotenko, Guerin and Craig Adams also scored as the fourth-seeded Penguins secured a return trip to the Stanley Cup final, which they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games last spring.
"Knowing what to expect, hopefully, there will not be too much surprises," Crosby said. "We talk about experience all the time, but it is hard to learn."
Pittsburgh now awaits the winner of the Western Conference final, which the Red Wings lead 3-1 over the Chicago Blackhawks.
That best-of-seven series resumes Wednesday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET).
"This group in this dressing room has a lot to prove yet," Penguins forward Matt Cooke said. "Yeah, we're back to the Stanley Cup final, but we're not done."
If Detroit moves on, it will mark the first rematch of Stanley Cup finalists in consecutive post-seasons since the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders clashed in 1983 and 1984.
"There is a lot more story lines if it ends up Detroit," Crosby said. "It doesn't matter.
"A lot of guys, whether they were part of the team last year or guys who're new, we feel really fortunate to have this opportunity. What we went through last year was tough, but we have got a chance here and we want to make the most of it."
Crosby was quick to praise rookie head coach Dan Bylsma for motivating the team in a manner that Michel Therrien, his predecessor behind the bench, could not.
"He has been great for us, brought a great attitude, turned our game around and brought an up-tempo game," Crosby said of Bylsma, who took over from Therrien on Feb. 15.
"We went after teams more. He is new to this as much as we are and we're doing it all together."
Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was terrific, stopping the final 30 shots he faced.
Cam Ward countered with just 21 saves in a losing cause for the sixth-ranked Hurricanes, who had knocked off the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins to reach the conference final.
"They came at us," Cooke said. "They didn't quit, but there wasn't much question that the series played out the way it should have."
Eric Staal scored the lone goal for Carolina, his first and last of the series.
"It just doesn't feel very nice knowing that tomorrow we're all done," he said.
Hurricanes strike in 96 seconds
Staal opened the scoring 96 seconds into the contest, when Penguins defenceman Rob Scuderi was stripped of the puck on a combined effort from Sergei Samsonov and Erik Cole.
Staal retrieved the bouncing puck behind the net and promptly wrapped it inside the left post for his 10th goal of the playoffs.
Pittsburgh evened proceedings 8:21 into the first period on a deft tip from Fedotenko.
Talbot flicked the puck so hard into the offensive zone that it whipped all the way around the end boards to teammate Philippe Boucher at the opposite point.
Boucher unleashed a one-timer that Fedotenko tipped into the net as he cruised toward the crease for the tying goal, his sixth.
Talbot put the Penguins ahead 2-1 on a fluke, taking a shot that struck the skate of Hurricanes defenceman Anton Babchuk and fluttered past Ward on the glove side with 1:29 left in the period.
"It hit his skate, popped up and I lost sight of it for a split second," Ward said. "Bad break, fluke goal."
Babchuk, scratched from the lineup in the first three games, later coughed up the puck that led to Pittsburgh's next goal.
Guerin increased Pittsburgh's lead to 3-1 with his seventh goal on an odd-man rush with Crosby, who fed the veteran winger with a perfect pass over the stick of Hurricanes defenceman Joni Pitkanen 12:10 into the second period.
"Obviously, it was a great pass but it was a huge goal," Bylsma said. "It gave us some breathing room against a team that, from our vantage point, was coming at us pretty hard in a tough place to play."
Adams completed the scoring with his third, an empty-netter with 80 seconds remaining in the third.