Monday June 1st, 2009

At least no one can blame the springy boards tonight.

The Detroit Red Wings beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals (RECAP | BOX), and they did it the old-fashioned way. The defending champs worked harder and smarter, got better goaltending and capitalized on their opportunities. As a result, they'll take a 2-0 series lead with them to Pittsburgh for Game 3 on Tuesday. That particular state of affairs does not bode well for the Penguins. Of the 32 teams to lose Games 1 and 2 of the final, only the 1971 Montreal Canadiens managed to come back and claim the Cup.

That's not to suggest the Pens are out of it. After all, it's not a series until someone loses at home, and this team already has come from a 2-0 deficit against Washington in Round 2. But taking four of five from a Detroit team that's won seven of eight seems like an onerous task.

If they hope to get back into it, their fortunes rely on a remarkable turnaround from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. While he wasn't as erratic as on Saturday, the 24-year-old was widely outplayed by Detroit's Chris Osgood for the second consecutive game. Fleury had no chance on Valtteri Filppula's go-ahead goal (he was buried under friend and foe alike when the awkward backhander sailed over him), but the opening goal by Jonathan Ericsson and the insurance marker by Justin Abdelkader were long range, unscreened bids that have to be stopped for the Pens to have a chance to win.

The final goal, a wobbling slapper from the top of the circle, was a real killer. It might not have taken the starch out of the Penguins, but it did quash any real hope of a late rally.

"I thought we got a good break when [Abdelkader] scored tonight," Detroit coach Mike Babcock. "It's a different game if it's 2-1 and they have much more hope."

Yeah, a lot different. Just like it would have been different if the unflappable Osgood hadn't denied Ruslan Fedotenko early, stoned Evgeni Malkin alone in tight or quelled a trio of excellent chances from Sidney Crosby later on with the result still in question. But that's the thing -- Osgood has allowed a goal in each game, but hasn't allowed the Penguins to build on either one. He had a bit of help from his metal buddies tonight (both Crosby and Bill Guerin hit the pipes after some crafty east-west play) but Osgood held the fort when it mattered.

Abdelkader's goal, his second in as many nights, also highlighted another problem area for the Pens. Their depth simply can't match up with Detroit's bottom six in terms of skill, effort or results. That places extra pressure on Crosby and Malkin to deliver the goods. And while Babcock noted that both players have been engaged since the drop of the puck in Game 1, neither has delivered the sort of dominating performance that the Pens need from them in order to steal at least one in Detroit.

Credit the Wings for that. Their five-man approach to defending the duo ensured both were consistently shepherded to the outside where they were stripped of possession or forced to settle for an option with little potential. Neither player was given the time or space to do much damage five-on-five until Crosby generated a few stellar chances during a third-period surge.

That said, it was a better game for the captain, particularly in the face-off circle where he went 10-of-15 after a disastrous performance in Game 1. One of those wins came on Pittsburgh's only power-play attempt of the night, and allowed the Pens to do something they failed to do on two chances in the opener -- set up in Detroit's zone and prod their defense for holes. After controlling the puck for 42 seconds, they finally found one in the midst of a mad scramble that ended when Brad Stuart knocked it into his own net to give the Pens a 1-0 lead.

Malkin was given credit for the goal, his second point of the series, but his frustration with the tight checking was apparent all night. He took a retaliatory penalty against Ericsson in the second then instigated a fight with Henrik Zetterberg with 19 seconds left in the game.

At least he'll have a chance to redeem himself in Game 3. The NHL issued a statement after the contest saying that Malkin would not be automatically suspended for the incident. "Suspensions are applied under this rule when a team attempts to send a message in the last five minutes by having a player instigate a fight," league disciplinarian Colin Campbell said in a statement. "A suspension could also be applied when a player seeks retribution for a prior incident. Neither was the case here and therefore the one game suspension is rescinded."

While the league won't go to the whip, you wonder when Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma will. Although he mixed up his lines to try to free up Crosby from facing the smothering attentions of Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, he seems unwilling to place his two main eggs into one dynamic basket, an option that seemed more obvious as the clock wound down. If being down by two late in a finals game doesn't call for desperate measures, what does?

Bylsma also opened himself up for criticism by choosing not to take his timeout while nursing a 1-0 lead early in the second.

It was a nearly identical situation to one that arose late in the second period of Game 1 when an icing call left an exhausted quintet of Pens on the ice for a defensive zone draw. Bylsma called the timeout in that case and though Detroit scored on the ensuing shift it was a logical move to buy his players some rest. Bylsma said as much after the game, and stated he would make the same decision again.

Well, maybe not. With the Pens sucking wind after a 100-second shift spent deep in their zone, Kris Letang sent the puck down the ice. But this time, Bylsma decided to let things play out ... and the decision again backfired. The Wings got in a quick line change. Darren Helm beat Max Talbot on the draw, Jiri Hudler jumped on the loose puck and dished it to Ericsson at the left point. A moment later and the puck was behind Fleury, letting Detroit back into a game that the Pens had dominated for the previous 15 minutes.

Last season, the Penguins were down 2-0 against the Red Wings in the finals and were unable to reel them back in. The games are closer this season, but the result is the same as the Wings rely on tried and true methods to win. With their season on the line, Pittsburgh might want to try a few themselves.

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