Friday, June 05, 2009

5:37 Might Decide The Destination Of This Year's Stanley Cup

After four games of the Stanley Cup Finals, few things are certain, other than the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins are square at two wins apiece.

But here's one: five minutes and thirty-seven seconds of the second period of Game 4 are either going to be someone's house of horrors (Detroit's) or simply a really good, exciting stretch of play that turned the home crowd on (Pittsburgh).


That's how long it took the Penguins to, all at once, tie the game, lead the game, and take control of the game.

And maybe, just maybe, rescue their chances of winning the Stanley Cup. Or maybe ensuring themselves of winning the Cup, period.

The Penguins were trailing, 2-1. A rather innocent shot from the point had eluded goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the first minute of the period. In fact, it looked as if Fleury had been screened by his own man.

The crowd was quiet. Nervous, even. The Red Wings, when they get playoff leads and sniff a road win, aren't ones to implode, usually.

Then came those five minutes, thirty-seven seconds.

It started with the Red Wings on, of all things, a power play.

All playoffs, the Wings have bemoaned their penalty kill. It has consistently ranked among the lowest of the teams in the post-season. A Penguin power play in these Finals has too often resulted in a Penguin goal.

But here the Red Wings were, with a man advantage of their own. An excellent opportunity to forge a nice little two-goal lead for themselves.

Turns out the Detroiters had trouble killing off their own power play.

Jordan Staal kicked things off with hockey's equivalent of a knife to the back: the shorthanded goal.

Staal outraced Nicklas Lidstrom down the ice with the puck after a nifty pass from Max Talbot at the Pittsburgh blue line, showing deceptive speed.

Staal then deked goalie Chris Osgood, going backhand-forehand before sliding the puck beneath the netminder, with Lidstrom draped all over the Penguins forward.

It was a back-breaking goal, and one that Osgood, truthfully, should have stopped. Ozzie was way too deep, it appeared on the replays, in his crease and thus gave Staal too much room with which to work. Some aggressive challenging of Staal might have worked better, especially with Staal being harassed by Lidstrom.

That made the score 2-2 and even though the Red Wings remained on the power play, the whole spectre of the game changed, right there.

As the Mellon Arena crowd roared, the Red Wings were reduced to being in survival mode--on their own power play. The Pens killed the rest of it off, and what ensued were several minutes of Penguins pouring over the Red Wings' blue line as if the Detroit zone was the Wal-Mart the day after Thanksgiving, and the doors had just been unlocked.

Osgood was left hung out to dry as first Sidney Crosby (remember him?), then Tyler Kennedy scored as a result of odd-man rushes. And when I say odd-man rushes, I mean it like, "Where the hell were the Red Wings on that play?"

Speaking of odd-man rushes, I know that Evgeni Malkin is a world-class player and he's not to be trifled with, but I've never seen one player breaking in on a goalie, whether solo or on 2-on-1s, as often as Malkin has in this series.

Malkin has had at least one clear-cut breakaway per game, and the fact that he hasn't scored on them shouldn't soothe the Red Wings. Because if this continues, he's going to stop not scoring and start winning this series all by himself.

Malkin has been dominating in the Finals, almost a man among boys on the ice. The Red Wings have paid so much attention to Crosby that you wonder where "cover Malkin" is listed in the team's playbook.

Because it sure doesn't seem like anyone on the Red Wings has that responsibility, or if he does, he ought to look up toward the clock to see if his jockstrap is hanging from it.

Malkin is killing the Red Wings--or at the very least, inflicting wounds at a devastatingly rapid rate.

These Finals, after the two games in Pittsburgh, are making the Red Wings look like a tired, old team and the Penguins a hungrier, faster, stronger one.

But there's always home cooking.

The Penguins can't win the Cup without winning a game in Detroit, plain and simple. Their best chance to do so would appear to be tomorrow night in Game Five.

Only one day off between games. That ancient word, momentum, supposedly on their side. A maybe tired, dazed bunch of Red Wings facing them.

But home ice can do wonders for a downtrodden team. The Penguins need only to look at themselves to prove that axiom.

They came home to Pittsburgh bemoaning their luck and their fate in Games One and Two.

Look at them now.

I still think the Red Wings have enough to stave off these Penguins (I picked Detroit in seven before the series), but they'll need to do more than just put all their eggs in the home ice basket in order to do so.

They can't get younger, but they can get back to their game.

I counted zero, zip, odd-man rushes in Game One for the Penguins. The Red Wings have to get back to that style in Game Five.

What happened in that 5:37 in the second period of Game Four is just sitting there, like a fat old pimple on the Red Wings' face.

Is it merely a blemish, or the beginning of a total breaking out of hockey acne?

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