Sunday June 7th, 2009

We can imagine how the late Bob Johnson might have consoled his troops after the Penguins were humiliated 5-0 by the Red Wings in Game 5. "You can lose three games and still win the series," he'd have reminded them.

Sage advice. One goal, five goals, 10 goals ... that debacle still counted as just one loss. And even with three of those black marks now against them in the Stanley Cup Finals, these Pens are still alive to fight another day.

No doubt current coach Dan Bylsma offered similar encouragement after the blowout, and energized the disheartened bunch with thoughts of a return to Mellon Arena for Tuesday's Game 6, where they have a chance of earning a third win of their own.

But they know the truth. They know they may already have blown their best chance to win the series. And that has to be a real concern now for the Penguins.

Saturday night's loss wasn't just a matter of Detroit holding serve at Joe Louis Arena, a building that's become a house of horrors for the Penguins. Game 5 was the first time they'd faced the real Red Wings. That spanking was a reminder that the Pens were able only to keep pace through four games with a team that was missing its best player. And now that the MVP candidate Pavel Datsyuk is back in the lineup -- at 50 percent, 75 percent, whatever -- his two-way presence tilts the series heavily in favor of the defending champs.

So all those worries about scoring just twice in three road games in the Final? About Marc-Andre Fleury's .857 save percentage in Detroit? Forget about 'em. The Pens have to find a way to beat the Real Wings in Pittsburgh before trying to break the Joe Louis Curse. Here are six areas that they need to address Tuesday:

1. Regain their poise. They have to put the silliness of Game 5 behind them. Immediately. Starting the game on an even keel is critical ... but so is maintaining composure for 60 minutes. They started off all right on Saturday, but things fell apart pretty quickly due to a lack of discipline that started with the Chris Kunitz goalie interference penalty. The Pens can't afford mental misfires like that on Tuesday night, but if one arises, they have to ensure that they don't compound the mistake due to frustration (that finger's pointed at you, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby). Getting abused out there? Take a number and file it away. That's what November games are for.

2. Become a more dangerous team five-on-five. The numbers don't lie. In five games, the Pens have crafted just four goals at even strength. That's not going to get the job done and not just because of how rarely they've lit the lamp, but because it speaks to their inability to dictate how and where the game is being played. The Wings were drawn into taking just two penalties in Game 5, a fair reflection of how little pressure they were facing in the defensive zone.

3. Make the most of their power play opportunities. Assuming they actually earn a few, it's worth remembering that you don't have to score a goal with the extra man for a power play to be successful. Sure, it helps, but sometimes a surge of extended control in the offensive zone is enough to either swing momentum or accelerate the process of wearing down defenders. The Pens failed miserably to accomplish either goal in Game 5, generating just one shot on those two chances. A big part of their problem was getting control in the first place. Five times they dumped it into the zone on the PP, and every time Detroit managed to gain possession and clear it out. The Pens need to be quicker on the puck if they hope set up down low and create chaos around the cool and collected Chris Osgood.

4. Score the first goal. Bylsma's boys have been a resilient group in the postseason, finding ways to dig themselves out of plenty of holes thanks to their offensive firepower. But timing is everything, and getting on the board first against Detroit is crucial. The Wings are 10-1 when they notch the opening tally because it allows them to impose their will on the game. Going down a goal against these guys isn't a death sentence ... but it's hand grenade-close.

5. Get a better performance out of Marc-Andre Fleury. He doesn't have to steal Game 6 for the Pens to win, but he can't be average either. Bylsma was quick to defend his stopper on Saturday, suggesting that three of the first four goals were deflections on which he had no chance. But stop for a moment and consider what he said: three of the first four goals. Excuse 'em away however you want -- bad bounces, untimely screens, or distractions caused by Spencer's creepy flesh-colored beard -- but the Pens simply can't survive if Fleury's giving up that many. A confidence-building stop early (a breakaway or a chance in close) would be huge. That said, a bit more crease sweeping by his defenders wouldn't hurt, either.

6. It's time for Sid to be Sid. Before the series started, he looked like Pittsburgh's best Conn Smythe bet. After five Finals appearances, he's well behind Evgeni Malkin and that's despite the fact that the Russian has alternated between a Ferrari on skates and Gary Busey on steroids. Crosby has had his moments, several of them in Game 4 in fact, but he hasn't been able to consistently create space with Henrik Zetterberg sharing his jock. Zetty isn't going away, and now he has Datsyuk as his wingman, compounding the challenge. If Crosby is a non-factor in Game 6, he'll have all summer to make excuses. But if he wants to extend his season, it's time for the Kid to reverse the whip. Grind them into the ice defensively and generate his own offense out of their forced errors. He wants to be the best? It's time he takes a lesson from his tormentor.

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