Stellar Wings draining finals drama
The calendar read Memorial Day on Monday, but damn if this weren't Groundhog's Day.
Stop us if you've heard this one before: the Detroit Red Wings put a few pucks behind Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-André Fleury; outhustle and outmuscle the Penguins, at least if measured by seismic hits and not the near-Bertuzzian (and unpenalized) gloved sucker punch to the head from behind in the third period by Gary Roberts on Detroit's Johan Franzen, who was returning after a six-game absence because of a concussion; cocoon goalie Chris Osgood, who did not have to face an even-strength shot until 25:24 had elapsed; throttle Evgeni Malkin, holding the incredibly shrinking Russian center and his No. 2 line without a shot; not allow Pittsburgh to lug the puck through the neutral zone with speed or to establish any semblance of a forecheck; and start to engrave a plaque in honor of Pittsburgh left winger Ryan Malone, to be placed in the visitor's penalty box at Joe Louis Arena to mark his four minor penalties.
Following a furious game of musical chairs with their left wingers after being whitewashed 4-0 in Game 1, the reengineered Penguins, who had not been shut out in consecutive games since February 2003, came out in Game 2 and saw their shadow. Now, there might be two games left in the hockey season.
The sound you heard after Detroit's ditto 3-0 victory Monday was all the people clicking off their Versus telecast of the game, at least by folks who can find the NHL's subterranean cable partner. NBC picks up the Stanley Cup final with Game 3, which looks like the network is getting the rights to air Titanic but only after the ship is halfway submerged. Still, The Peacock will be cranking up the hype machine at any moment:
"See Sidney Crosby, the future of the NHL, as he tries to escape the straitjacket of the Detroit Red Wings! Harry Houdini did it. Why not Sid? Can the Penguins win a game? Can the Penguins score a goal? See it live on NBC, Wednesday at 8 p.m."
Of course, there have been soporific starts to recent Stanley Cup finals, including a pair of 3-0 shutouts in the opening two games of the 2003 match between Anaheim and New Jersey when apparently the Mighty Ducks were not informed the final had actually begun. The Ducks rallied at home and indeed the series dragged on for seven games, but the difference was these were not terribly appealing teams that operated in smaller markets. (A brief hockey geography lesson: New Jersey is not New York and Anaheim is not Los Angeles.) This well-hyped final, five years and one lockout removed from the Devils-Ducks, featured two marvelously skilled teams with undeniable star power -- Crosby and Malkin vs. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk -- that, at least before this contretemps commenced, seemed capable of producing some bold, memorable hockey. The NHL needed a long, engaging series between an Original Six franchise with 10 Stanley Cups and a dynasty-in-the-making. The perfect scenario would have been a Game 7, a winner-take-all match that would attract viewers who could drop in for a night without having to invest emotionally in a sport that unfortunately strikes too many Americans as exotic.
As Osgood noted after Game 1, the Penguins just never had seen a team like Detroit in the Eastern Conference, one that could resolutely hold on to the puck and make poised, clever plays. But it is not merely Detroit's ability to make teams chase it all game that limits scoring chances -- Pittsburgh had 22 shots in Game 2 after a meager 19 in the series opener -- but its quick transitions by the top two defense pairs (Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall) and a team-wide willingness to collapse to the front of the net and clear rebounds.
"They don't give you much room," said Penguins fourth-liner Jarkko Ruutu. "We just have to be a little more hungry, put the pucks on the net and create chances that way. It's not going to be a perfect shot or a perfect play. When they get the lead, it's easy for them to play. They have a good system. We haven't been able to bury a goal despite having chances."
"Definitely the most complete team we played so far, as far as playing as a unit of five," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "They don't make many mistakes. We've faced it before, but not to this extreme. We don't have a lot off the rush, and we have to adjust. We have to start playing below the dots, below the goal line and start generating chances there. I would have never thought it possible (not score a goal in two games) with some of the talent (we have); you just figure a lucky bounce off a rebound or a shot (will go in). We're surprised. We came in here expecting to at least get a win. Now there's nothing we can do about it. We can either get down on ourselves and struggle in Game 3 or regroup and come back with a good effort in Pittsburgh."
Coach Michel Therrien noted the Penguins were headed back home, "a place that we're tough to play against." Back in Pennsylvania, the Penguins might be more comfortable than they were in their locale Monday -- the state of denial. Right now, Pittsburgh is convinced it just needs to score the first goal and the series will turn around. How about one goal?