PITTSBURGH (AP) – No team in the Eastern Conference playoffs has found a Crosby stopper, a defensively skilled forward who is effective game after game in slowing Sidney Crosby.

Carolina center Matt Cullen showed flashes of being a shutdown defender against Crosby in Game 1, and the Hurricanes may need a near duplication of that performance if they’re to even the conference finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.

The Cullen line was largely responsible for limiting Crosby to no goals, an assist and two shots during Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory on Monday- about as close as the Penguins’ captain has come to being blanketed. Crosby was coming off an eight-goal series against Washington and leads NHL playoff scorers with 22 points.

“I thought the Cullen line played pretty good and I thought he made a good adjustment in making sure those guys stayed off the score sheet,” coach Paul Maurice said.

What the Hurricanes couldn’t prevent the Penguins from doing was winning. Since a team taking a 2-0 series lead goes on to win about 85 percent of the time, the Hurricanes can’t realistically expect to win the series if they go back to Raleigh without a split in Pittsburgh.

The Hurricanes’ ability to stay within their system was a major factor in them winning their last five Game 2s, almost a necessity given they also lost Game 1 in all five series.

Crosby knows exactly how they’ll try to do that, too. The Hurricanes never let up against the Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lines in Game 1, and Crosby is certain they will stay true to their system.

Carolina wants to pressure the puck, stifle the Penguins’ offensive flow and keep the game in Pittsburgh’s zone.

“They don’t give you a whole lot,” Crosby said. “They have a great work ethic and depth, and they come at you every shift.”

The question is whether the Hurricanes will come at the Penguins with two of their most physical players, injured forwards Tuomo Ruutu (right ankle) and Erik Cole (knee). Neither player practiced Wednesday as they rested after Game 1 injuries, and it appears likely both will miss Game 2.

Being without either or both players – Ruutu appears to be more seriously injured – would significantly thin the Hurricanes’ depth for what might be their most pivotal game of the season.

Despite the Hurricanes’ proven ability to rally, falling behind the Penguins 2-0 might prove to be too demanding an assignment. With Crosby in their lineup, the Penguins haven’t lost any of the five playoff series they’ve led at any point.

While the Hurricanes always seem to be on their game in Game 2, Maurice hinted they shouldn’t go in thinking they will automatically win because they lost Game 1. Crosby, Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was superb while making a succession of game-saving saves in Game 1, are three reasons why.

“It’s not like we’ve played 15 games, lost them all, and come back and won the next one,” Maurice said. “That is a small sample we are talking about. I think that what we have done over our first two series is we’ve learned as we went. Just found smarter and better ways to play the game based on what we had learned in Game 1.”

Despite numerous scoring chances by both teams, Game 1 was tighter defensively than any of those during the Penguins-Capitals series, and Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma knows Carolina wants Game 2 to be similar.

“Out of all the teams, this is probably the best team at knowing their game, playing their game and doing it over and over again with hard work,” Bylsma said. “They play their game and they’re very disciplined in how they play their game. That’s how they’ve become resilient and that’s how they’ve come back in series.”

AP-ES-05-20-09 1833EDT

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