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Starkey: Hard to hate the 'Canes

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Penguins followers didn't need to break a sweat to work up a healthy hatred for the Washington Capitals.

Even the casual fan could be incited by two simple words:

1. Alex.

2. Ovechkin.

One word worked in the previous round:


The Carolina Hurricanes are a different species altogether.

Who are you going to hate on a largely anonymous team that recorded the fewest penalty minutes in the league?

Dennis Seidenberg?

Tuomo Ruutu?

Joe Corvo?

The Hurricanes are a fast, feisty, experienced club — the best the Penguins have played, for sure — but they do not breed loathing. Their best player is Eric Staal, who is nothing like the obnoxious and ornery Ovechkin and who happens to be the older brother of Penguins center Jordan Staal.

How are you going to hate him?

Ruutu is the younger brother of former Penguins folk hero Jarkko Ruutu, and winger Patrick Eaves is the son of former Penguins assistant coach Mike Eaves, who might be the nicest man on the planet ... if Ron Francis isn't — and you probably know that erstwhile Penguins star Francis works behind the Hurricanes' bench as an assistant coach.

Another Penguins Stanley Cup hero, Tom Barrasso, is the team's goaltending coach (he also helps run the penalty kill).

Geez, even Carolina's manager of media relations, Kyle Hanlin, has local ties. He was born in Pittsburgh.

Hurricanes head coach Paul Maurice is a class act, as is general manager Jim Rutherford, a former Penguins goaltender who has somehow managed to make hockey matter in Raleigh, N.C.

See the problem here?

There's more. The Hurricanes' newest celebrity fan is none other than "The Jaw" himself, former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who has been living in Raleigh since he left the sidelines three years ago.

Before Game 3 of each of the past two playoff series, Cowher, who played football next door at North Carolina State, has enthusiastically cranked up the team's "warning siren" to fire up the RBC Center crowd.

Entire sections of the arena are covered in spittle before the opening faceoff.

Cowher spoke about a potential Hurricanes-Penguins matchup during a recent interview on ESPN Radio 99.9 The Fan, in Raleigh.

"You know, I hope I have that problem," he said, before memorably adding, "I guess I'm the Game 3 horn guy."

Who's he rooting for?

"I'll tell you what, I have a better feel for the Hurricane team right now, to be honest with you, than I do the Penguin team," Cowher said. "The Penguins certainly were a team I grew up watching and have followed through the years, but this team here is starting to grow on me."

Hmmm. Maybe we have something to work with there. Maybe the Penguins should find a way to get Steelers coach Mike Tomlin involved in this series. He already attends games in his Sidney Crosby jersey. Maybe he could appear on the scoreboard before Game 1 and deliver one of his fiery pep talks.

You know what, though• It won't matter how much contempt this series breeds —- and it is sure to breed some —- because the hockey will be so good.

Think back to the Penguins' 3-2 overtime loss April 4 at Carolina. It was about as entertaining a regular-season game as you'll ever see, with the teams racing up and down the ice trading scoring chances and big hits. Both goaltenders were terrific.

"That game, still, to me, was one of the fastest games of the year," Maurice said Friday. "From the bench, it was breathtaking."

Crosby expects more of the same over the next few weeks, as two teams that took off after the All-Star break battle for the right to play in the Stanley Cup final.

"I think you're going to see fast hockey," Crosby said. "Both teams play a similar style."

It'll be more about the hockey than the hatred, all right, and it might wind up being every bit as memorable as the Capitals series.

Just ask the Game 3 horn guy.

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