Sunday May 31st, 2009

The deficit was the same as after last year's Stanley Cup Final opener, but the Pittsburgh Penguins skated off the ice with something they didn't have 12 months ago.

Confidence.

If Saturday night's 3-1 loss demonstrated anything, it's that the gap between the Pens and the Detroit Red Wings has narrowed considerably.

Granted, the Wings skated absent a significant piece of their championship puzzle (Pavel Datsyuk, who remains a game-time decision until he actually suits up). And there were still several clearly definable problem areas to discuss before tonight's Game 2 (more on those in a moment). But the Pens looked to be full value for that whole older, wiser element that received considerable play before the series started.

In fact, this should feel like a missed opportunity for Pittsburgh. That's not to suggest the Wings didn't earn the win -- they certainly did -- but they faced a side that was far more competitive than the one that appeared awestruck by the situation in Game 1 last year. The Pens came out strong, and controlled the pace for several stretches, including the better part of the second period. If not for some exceptional work by Chris Osgood early in that stanza -- and a couple of frustrating near misses by Evgeni Malkin and Miroslav Satan -- they might have earned a better result.

"We know we can win, and we showed tonight that we're right there," said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. "We're confident."

Confidence will be an important element as they try to knot up the series before heading home for Game 3 on Tuesday. But that doesn't compensate for four key areas the Penguins need to address tonight.

• Their fans are no doubt griping that the spring in the boards cost them a pair of flukey goals, but while the Pens were beaten on a couple of bounces they weren't caught off guard by the potential for odd hops. They spent considerable time during the morning skate hammering the puck off the wall, testing to see what might result from an intentional shot wide.

Since both sides play within the same walls, it's not truly a home ice advantage. Seasoned Wings watchers will tell you the boards giveth and the boards taketh away. Detroit just happened to make the most of them last night. When Pittsburgh's defenders took away the shooting lanes, the Wings' D sent the puck off the wall then capitalized off the caroms by winning the battles down low. Since the Wings are equally adept at limiting direct chances, the Pens need to make better decisions in traffic by re-directing a few of their bids to get around the congestion. The trick will be establishing a consistent presence around the crease. Without that element, it's just another wide shot.

• Fleury simply has to be better. You can characterize him as the luckless victim on two of Detroit's three goals, but the truth is he looked scrambly for much of the night and was sprawled out of position on both of the bounces that got behind him.

More to the point, he failed to steal one. His defense did its part, limiting the Wings to just 30 shots on the night. But as I mentioned before the series, stopping 90 percent of the pucks he faces won't get the job done. If the Pens are to take this series, they have to win at least one at Joe Louis Arena. That won't be easy. The Wings are 9-1 at home this spring, suggesting that Fleury has to be perfect, or nearly so, for Pittsburgh to have a chance.

Meanwhile, Osgood was lights out at the other end of the ice (let the Conn Smythe talk commence), stopping 31 of 32, including a breakaway bid by Malkin with the score tied at one early in the second frame. If that rising shot sails past his glove, it's a different game. As my colleague Darren Eliot pointed out Saturday night, Osgood's game was so economical as to appear routine. He's in the zone right now, playing with poise and confidence. For the Pens to disrupt that, they need more net presence from Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz and Max Talbot (yep, there's that point again).

• The Pens were dead brutal on the draw, giving the Wings far too many opportunities to start play with the puck on their sticks. Detroit won 39 of the 56 draws, a success rate of nearly 70 percent. But it wasn't simply a matter of Henrik Zetterberg and Darren Helm making the most of their home ice advantage. It takes more than a center to win a draw, and the Wings demonstrated that they have the best five-man face-off unit in hockey.

Consider Justin Abdelkader's third period insurance goal. Jordan Staal drew the puck back on the draw, but Ville Leino won the battle for possession along the back boards against Mark Eaton. Seconds later, a pass was on the tape of Abdelkader who got off a pair of chances while Staal was still spinning around trying the find the biscuit.

The point didn't get past coach Dan Byslma. "They're a puck possession team as are we," he said. "Starting with the puck is better than not. One of the things we talked about was our wingers being aware and ready to jump in and help out. The centerman doesn't often win cleanly, [so] a lot of those are puck battles [that are won] off the draw. Being aware, being ready, is the responsibility of the wingers and the D in the defensive zone, so that's an area we can do a better job of."

• While many pre-series assessments suggested that the Wings had the advantage in most every head-to-head comparison, the one area where the Pens were given the edge was on the power play. Ever since moving Malkin up high to make use of his superior shot and shifting Sidney Crosby down low to capitalize on his strength and his quick hands, Pittsburgh has been more effective with the extra man. Meanwhile, Detroit has been unable to fight off its PK demons, allowing 15 goals on just 57 opportunities through the first three rounds.

So, why couldn't the Pens take advantage of back-to-back chances in the second while the game was still knotted at one? It might be that the Wings' much-maligned unit is rounding into shape. They were aggressive on the puck, mucking up the neutral zone to force the Pens into repeated turnovers, and limited Pittsburgh to just one shot, an awkward angle bid by Guerin that had no chance of getting by Osgood.

Weakness in the circles didn't help, either. Crosby was beaten by Zetterberg at the start both opportunities, allowing Detroit to quickly negate the advantage that comes with having the draw in the Wings' zone.

Starting with possession would be a big step for the Pens, but maintaining it is more crucial. They failed to set up even once during those two chances, eliminating whatever edge the playmaking abilities of Malkin and Crosby gives them. Playing dump and chase might seem counterintuitive given their skill level, but Pittsburgh needs to find a way to break through Detroit's blue line wall. Sometimes the simplest approach is the most effective.

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