Sunday April 25th, 2010

OTTAWA -- This was Game 6 one year later - without a fight.

Rummage through the footlocker of memory to last spring when the Pittsburgh Penguins, the eventual Stanley Cup champions, found themselves in Philadelphia, trailing 3-0, in Game 6. That was the moment Penguins forward Max Talbot decided to become a sacrificial lamb, a punching bag for the Flyers' Daniel Carcillo, who celebrated the lopsided bout as if he had just whupped Muhammad Ali. The fight was mother's milk to the fans in Philadelphia. To the Penguins, Talbot's willingness to engage was even more critical. Whether you personally believe in the restorative power of pugilism in hockey ... well, that hardly matters. The Penguins do, and they all thought that Talbot taking one, or several, for the team spurred them to a 5-3 series-clinching road win.

Now fast-forward to Saturday night in Ottawa. The Penguins, who like last year had failed to close out a series in five games, again fell into a 3-0 hole on the scoreboard. This one wasn't especially pretty. Sidney Crosby, who entered the game with a plus nine to go with his NHL-leading 14 playoff points, was on the ice for all three Ottawa goals. The defensive tandem of Kris Letang and Mark Eaton, also a combined minus six, was being shredded.

With the unappetizing prospect of Game 7 looming, the Penguins, who at times this season have appeared to be lollygagging their way through a Stanley Cup defense, thumbed through the playbook. They were brushing up on the old formulas that can lead to another championship.

"I told Max," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, "this time you didn't need to get beat up for us to come back from 3-0."

"We had a similar situation in Philly, this time minus the fight," Matt Cooke said. "We battled back there, too. You draw on your experiences. This is a different year, of course, but I think those experiences help you have success."

Informed by a glorious past -- this includes winning all four series on the road en route to the Cup in 2009 - the Penguins took a bold step into the future. Well, at least into the second playoff round. Instead of a fight, a gritty Cooke rebound goal midway through the second period cut the deficit to a manageable two goals and changed the tenor of the game. The Penguins came in waves, outshooting Ottawa 18-4 in the third period, while the Senators collapsed around goalie Pascal Leclaire. Another 40 minutes or so later, Pascal Dupuis fired a rolling puck over Leclaire's shoulder at 9:56 of overtime, and the Penguins had a 4-3 victory that constituted an impressive show of depth and nerve.

"One of the things we talked about going into the playoffs was maintaining the focus," Bylsma said. "Staying unflappable in whatever comes our way, whether that's losing a game or situations in a game when we get a goal called back. It's about keeping to the game plan. Tonight was probably our best game in that (regard.) Our bench was rock solid. Focused."

Crosby was held without a point after five straight multiple-point games. Evgeni Malkin had a single assist. But Cooke, who was on the ice in triple overtime when defenseman Matt Carkner's goal gave Ottawa a 4-3 win in Game 5, responded with two goals, and Bill Guerin added another on the power play. Eaton and Alex Goligoski also had assists. Jordan Staal had two helpers. See, Pittsburgh can go deep, both in the tournament and on the scoresheet. Crosby might be the face and even the soul of the franchise, but he played less than a third of the match. That's hockey math.

"It says a lot," Crosby said of the Penguins goal scorers. "(Malkin and I) are going to do a lot to create things, but some nights it might not go in. We've still had to do things out there ... be responsible (defensively), find ways to help, but we have guys who can step up and score those goals."

In a perfect world, the Penguins would have rolled through Ottawa in four or at least jumped on the opportunity to finish the series at home in five. That would have helped their bodies after a long season. But a series-clinching Game 6 victory in Ottawa can be therapy for the mind. Said defenseman Brooks Orpik, "It gets you battle level up, obviously. (Losing a) triple overtime game, you kinda deal with adversity and see how your team is going to react. For a team like us, gaining more experience is only a good thing." The six games didn't just make the Penguins sore. It perhaps made them better.

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