Penguins live another day
DETROIT – They were 34.3 seconds away from elimination, 34.3 seconds away from learning a bitter, but valuable lesson about how to win in the Stanley Cup playoffs from the masters, the coolly efficient Detroit Red Wings.
Summer beckoned; all around them, the Pittsburgh Penguins could hear the capacity crowd celebrating.
“We want the Cup,” they chanted, and you pretty much knew that everybody in that sold-out Joe Louis Arena figured it was just a matter of time before commissioner Gary Bettman would venture down the red carpet and hand the Stanley Cup to the Detroit Red Wings’ captain Nicklas Lidstrom.
It was inevitable, wasn’t it? The Red Wings had just completed a monstrous rally, turning an early two-goal deficit into a one-goal third-period lead. Time was running out and the Penguins already had goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury on the bench, in a desperate attempt to tie it up.
In that situation, the Red Wings always seal the deal.
But this time they couldn’t. In what could turn out to be a monumental swing of momentum and emotion, the Penguins received a goal from Max Talbot at the 19:25 mark of the third period to stay alive and then – in the early morning hours – won it in triple overtime, when Petr Sykora ended a marathon by scoring on the 32nd shot against the Red Wings’ Chris Osgood on a Penguins’ power play. Jiri Hudler was in the penalty box, serving a double minor for high-sticking Pittsburgh’s Rob Scuderi when Sykora won it for the Penguins with his first goal of the series.
Sykora’s scoring heroics were only possible though because of Fleury’s extraordinary play in goal for the Penguins. Fleury stopped 58 shots in all, 24 in overtime, with the Red Wings pouring it on and looking for all the world as if they were going to win their fourth Stanley Cup in 11 years.
Afterwards, Fleury sat, slumped in his locker stall, too tired to even unstrap his pads. He had a silly, happy smile on his face – and the look was contagious in the dressing room. Talbot talked about how he hadn’t played as the sixth attacker all season. “Gutsy move by the coach.” Sergei Gonchar, who set up the winner, hadn’t played since regulation because of back spasms, after he went crashing into the end boards, pursuing Mikael Samuelsson. He talked about he was more nervous watching than he ever would have been playing. “I started feeling better; you know how it is with back spasms,” said Gonchar. “I told him I could try.”
So much of the talk before the series focused on the talent levels of the respective teams and the quality of hockey that they could potentially produce. Last night’s game lived up to the anticipation – and then some. They all came out to play – stars and role players on both sides, and especially Fleury, who faced 34 shots in regulation and then another 24 in the overtime and outright stole the victory for his team.
Pittsburgh looked confident early – Sidney Crosby was flying on virtually every shift. Detroit looked tentative – as if they couldn’t quite shield themselves from the knowledge that the Stanley Cup was in town and polished up, ready to be delivered into Lidstrom’s waiting hands, if they could just win one more time.
Teams usually pay lip service to the fact that the fourth game in any best-of-seven series is the hardest to win. That is doubly true on the night when they can actually sip from the Stanley Cup. The preparations for a celebration were all around them. Friends and family were in town, to be part of these ever-larger post-game celebrations. The T-shirts and ball caps proclaiming them Stanley Cup champions were squirreled away nearby, ready to come out at the final whistle. All day, the questions were about when, not if.
It can be a whirlwind of activity and it only ever sweeps up one team in its path, the one on the cusp of the championship. Conversely, it can also play right into the hands of the team on the ropes, the one with nothing to lose. That’s how the Penguins lived to play another day – by, as Crosby put it, leaving everything out there on every shift.
“I thought we were really nervous,” said Red Wings’ coach Mike Babcock. “We never made a play in the first period, for whatever reason – whether it was focusing on the outcome and not the process and just doing what we always do.
“And I hate to see Petr Sykora get that puck late. You just know it’s going in. He’s that kind of guy. He won a game for me like that in Dallas (as Anaheim’s coach) in five overtimes. So Peter has that ability to score and Fleury was good and we didn’t beat them.”
After days and days of insisting they needed to get pucks behind Detroit’s defence – and then win the battles in the corners – the Penguins actually did just that.
The first two goals were perfect illustrations of that sort of thing. On the first, by Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis out muscled Brian Rafalski off the puck and gave it to Crosby. Crosby’s touch pass found Hossa open momentarily and he snapped a quick wrister past Osgood on the stick side.
Hall’s goal – the Red Wings’ Niklas Krowall actually shot it into his own net – came after he rolled off a Johan Franzen check in the corner and carried the puck to the front of the net. Darren Helm sliced the lead to one and brought the crowd back in the game 2:54 into the second, a shot that deflected off defenceman Rob Scuderi after Kirk Maltby stripped the puck away from Jordan Staal at the Penguins’ blue line.
From there, the Red Wings cranked it up, and were rewarded with back-to-back third period goals by Pavel Datsyuk and Rafalski. Rafalski’s goal looked as if it would be the Cup-clincher – until Talbot banged home a loose puck by Osgood’s left side, turning the raucous crowd dead silent, in disbelief.
After two not-so-great outings to start the series, Fleury has put together three strong games in a row. On one memorable sequence way back in regulation, a Crosby turnover sent the Red Wings off to the races on a two-on-one rush. Valtteri Filppula and Mikael Samuelson passed it back and forth, Samuelsson eventually getting it back on his stick, looking at a wide-open net. But Fleury came across the crease in a flash and made a toe save that conjured up images of Grant Fuhr, who held the fort for the relentlessly aggressive Oilers all those years ago.
There were a lot of comparisons between the Oilers of then and the Penguins of now prior to the start of the series. In Edmonton’s first trip to the Stanley Cup final, they were swept and schooled by the more experienced New York Islanders. That didn’t happen to the Penguins. They are in it still, talking about going game-by-game and maybe even minute-by-minute – and seeing if that might not just be good enough to win it all, experience or not. After coming off the ropes last night behind Fleury, their emerging star in goal, the question in Pittsburgh isn’t ‘why?’ anymore.
It’s why not?