Friday June 5th, 2009

The déjà vu Stanley Cup final is now a must-see.

After the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins followed the exact script of their 2008 series -- two Detroit wins to open, a Penguins home ice win to follow -- the near summer rerun finished Thursday at Mellon Arena, replaced by a two-and-a-half-hour spectacular (with a second period for the ages) that was wildly entertaining and raucous. Playing for the fourth time in six nights, a hellish pace for midseason let alone the NHL's showcase event, the Penguins broke the old pattern and seemingly left the Red Wings' legendary poise in tatters with a 4-2 win.

There were obvious imperfections in the match that tied the series -- the Red Wings were uncharacteristically generous in turning pucks over and Sergei Gonchar and Bill Guerin (although nary a Detroit player) screened Pittsburgh goalie Marc-André Fleury on a long-range Brad Stuart goal early in the second period -- but the brilliance of these finalists burst through the restraints of nerves, checking and perhaps over-amped expectations that had marked the first three games. This was a delightful example of the hockey the NHL dreamed about when it attempted to reinvent itself after the 2004-05 lockout. The Red Wings, who have won four Stanley Cups in the past 11 years by pushing the pace, were caught and then passed by the Penguins, who played at warp speed and wound up forcing a veteran team into mistakes. The pressure on the Red Wings defensemen was so intense that keeping pucks in their offensive zone became more of an adventure than a Las Vegas weekend.

And while Fleury (37 saves) was brilliant, the match truly belonged to the three centers.

Evgeni Malkin. In the past, Malkin's performance in the playoffs has faded in and out like a bad cell phone connection. Can you hear him now? He opened the game by drawing a penalty and then scored a power-play goal with one-handed poke on a rebound off the boards -- similar to a goal the Red Wings scored in Game 1 at Joe Louis Arena.

But Malkin was merely revving his engine. After taking a ludicrous hooking penalty five feet from Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood in the second -- the first of successive penalties that forced the Penguins to play short-handed for the next 3:58 -- he would more than make amends. With the score tied 2-2 some five minutes after his two minutes of penalty-box shame, Malkin picked Stuart's pocket at the right point and burst out on a two-on-one with Sidney Crosby. On occasion, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma used Malkin and Crosby on the same line in Game 4 -- the nuclear option -- but there was no more serendipitous time than this one. Malkin drove down the right flank and Crosby down the left, leaving elongated Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson as the monkey in the middle. Malkin's first pass hit the defenseman, but he gathered the puck and this time feathered one to Crosby, who had a tap-in goal, his first of the final. Malkin now has 35 points, the most in a playoff since Wayne Gretzky's 40 in 1993.

In the final seconds of that period, Malkin grabbed a Henrik Zetterberg giveaway, skated 150 feet untouched, and, like his Game 1 breakaway, tested Osgood high to the glove side. When Osgood made the save, the clock in Mellon Arena read "0:00." Good thing Malkin didn't score. The 17,132 in attendance would have torn down the rink; the one going up across the street isn't going to be ready in time for Game 6.

• Crosby. Although his level of competitiveness never has flagged, the Pittsburgh captain's goal breakthrough was welcome -- if for no other reason than now he won't have to answer any more questions about it. He leads the playoffs with 15 goals because he pays the price, this time from teammate Kris Letang, who jumped Crosby and drove him to the ice in celebration. ("I didn't realize he had buried Sid on his back," Bylsma said. "But Kris Letang is a physical player, and he showed it there again.") But Crosby's goal was a gimme, not a play of supreme skill like the deft touch pass he made to set up Tyler Kennedy for the Penguins' fourth goal -- their third in 5:37. Detroit coach Mike Babcock didn't chase the Zetterberg versus Crosby matchup, but it is obvious the Red Wings miss Zetterberg's running mate Pavel Datsyuk, who took the warm-up but didn't play. Two stars (Malkin and Crosby) versus one (Zetterberg) no longer looks like a fair fight.

Jordan Staal. The other Penguins center has played like an innocent bystander through most of the final, but a desultory series can be jump-started in an eye blink, which was roughly the time Staal needed to power past flatfooted defenseman Brian Rafalski on a Pittsburgh penalty kill with Detroit leading 2-1. Rafalski is an elite defenseman. And he had a perfect angle to cut off the center. But Staal found an extra gear and then muscled past him, rapping a puck through Osgood's pads. The goal, Staal's first point in 10 games against Detroit in two finals, "sucked the life out of us," Babcock said.

There will be an infusion of energy -- and maybe Datsyuk -- when the Red Wings return home for the Game 5, but Staal's shorthanded goal looks like it might have been the moment that turned an intriguing series into something truly memorable. Certainly, Bylsma said, "it changed the complexion of the game."

In any case, there now are two or maybe three games left in a final that now is really percolating. And from the looks of it, the Penguins currently lead this series, two games to two.

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