PITTSBURGH -- On the 25th anniversary of the drafting of Mario Lemieux -- the nicest thing that has happened to this city since Mr. Rogers pulled on his first cardigan -- the Pittsburgh Penguins were silver if not exactly golden.
In a near-perfect game Tuesday in which Pittsburgh did not need Lemieux-like performances from the Super Mario Brothers known as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins forced a Game 7 in Detroit on Friday with a 2-1 victory. It was a testament to a reliable third line, a bounce-back goaltender and an accidental goalie who is The Piece on their team if not quite peace in our time.
His name is Rob Scuderi. He is a stay-at-home and heretofore no-name defenseman who had been called Scuds by his teammates but who now, unwillingly, is known as The Piece. Scuderi, one of the more thoughtful of the Penguins, happened to say to an interviewer a few days ago that any winning team needs a lot of pieces to the puzzle and he happened to be the piece. He meant to say "a piece," of course, but Jordan Staal, who with linemate Tyler Kennedy scored the Penguins goals, seized upon the slip of the lip with extraordinary gusto. While The Piece might not rank with Two Persons among the great nicknames in the sport -- current NHL official E.J. McGuire coached a fellow in the minors who was given that unlikely handle because no one person could possibly be that stupid -- it shows a certain agility of mind.
So, for that matter, did Scuderi in the final 15 seconds with the Penguins holding onto the one-goal lead by their fingertips. Scuderi stopped what appeared to be two shots in the blue paint, once with a shin guard, another with his toe, with the Red Wings looking like they were going to go all Penn State on the Penguins and run in the tying goal.
"I'm more of a standup goalie, not a butterflyer," said Scuderi, who is marvelously self-deprecating. "They're outnumbering us in front of the net and it's kinda tough to take one man. I just tried to go down, and I guess it hit me. I'm pretty fortunate there. Like I said, just glad to help out any way I can."
"You throw some pads on him, and he'd do a pretty good job, too." Staal said. "He's so solid defensively, and he'll do anything it takes to get (the puck) out of our zone. He's definitely a big piece of the puzzle."
The Big Piece?
"So," Staal said, grinning, "he says."
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury goes by the more conventional Flower, one that bloomed on a sticky spring night in Pittsburgh that was redolent of summer. A game removed from a quick exit -- he was pulled in the second period after Detroit beat him for five goals -- Fleury stopped 25 shots, including a Dan Cleary breakaway with about 1:45 left. Pavel Datysuk, a maestro with the puck, caught Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar with a nifty pass that sprung Cleary, who was bothered by a backchecking Brooks Orpik but still had a clear path to the net. Cleary shifted the puck to his backhand and tried to lift the puck, but Fleury, who thought of pokechecking but instead stayed patient, extended his left pad and glove to make the save.
At that moment Grant Fuhr, the Hall of Fame goaltender, text-messaged Pierre Larouche, the former 50-goal scorer who sits in the Penguins owners box and is one of Lemieux's closest friends. "That," the message read, "might be your Cup."
"The breakaway in the third period is a pretty big save at a pretty big time for our team," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "And that's what Marc-André has been able to do for our team throughout the playoffs."
"We all knew it was going to happen," Staal said of Fleury's splendid Game 6. "Flower's an unbelievable goaltender. He does a great job bouncing back, and he was obviously there for us the whole game. You could tell everybody in this room was confident that he wasn't going to let anything in."
Certainly Flower and The Piece had support. Even Petr Sykora blocked a shot. The veteran Penguins right winger hasn't exactly been known for throwing his body in front of speeding vulcanized rubber -- in fact, Sykora, who hadn't been dressed for a playoff game for a month and three days, recently really hasn't been known for much of anything -- but he interceded on a shot by Brett Lebda midway through the second period. (Sykora had a mere 20 blocks during the season, presumably because the puck found him as often as he found the puck.) But in an elimination game, Sykora laid it on the line by laying out in front of a puck.
Now a final deserving of a Game 7 will provide exactly that, a bit of high drama that could anoint this be the best seven-gamer since the New York Rangers beat Vancouver in 1994. Marian Hossa, the Benedict Arnold who joined the Detroit Red Coats because he thought he would have a better chance of winning the Cup there than in Pittsburgh, still might be correct, but it behooves him to actually do something about it. Hossa had just one shot Tuesday. Through the first six games, he has no goals and three assists.
If The Piece denies him, the Penguins could be golden.