PITTSBURGH – Despite being billed as a Stanley Cup final that would highlight the NHL’s most skilled and eye-popping players, it’s clear after three games that the rodeo is definitely back in town.
And how the referees call – or don’t call – it the rest of the way might go a long way toward determining whether or not the Pittsburgh Penguins can win the Stanley Cup this spring.
Here’s the reason. If the Red Wings have one hole in their game through which you can drive a Zamboni, it’s their penalty kill. The Penguins picked it apart in Game 3 for two goals en route to a win that not only allowed them to claw their way back into this series, but also exposed a mighty significant chink in the Red Wings armor.
And should the referees ever decide to call the muggings with any degree of consistency, it should be interesting to watch. After all, Detroit is lethal on the power play and brutal on the penalty kill, so at least we’ll see lots and lots of goals.
What was probably most perplexing about the way things developed in Game 3 was the fact the officials allowed the muggings to go largely unpunished – particularly with defensemen holding up forwards on the forecheck – then made a call on a rather innocuous play by Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson that led to Sergei Gonchar’s game-winner on the power play at the 10:29 mark of the third period.
“They told us they were going to clamp down on it,” said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. “But I’d seen four from one particular guy (we’re guessing Hall Gill) on their team prior in the game that never got called.”
Both teams were equally guilty of getting away with things throughout the game, so at least it’s not being called relatively fairly. But the bottom line is that anyone who thinks officiating has not emerged as a major issue in this series is kidding him (or her) self.
The prevailing notion going into the game was that the Penguins would almost certainly meekly bow out in four games if they didn’t come up with a better effort in Game 3. And for two periods, they responded by playing their most putrid hockey of the playoffs. After scoring at 4:48 of the first period on their fourth shot of the game, they watched the Red Wings score two goals before they recorded their next shot on goal 10:55 later. The Pens followed that up with just four shots in the second period and that they emerged from it with a 2-2 tie is one of the great head scratchers of this year’s playoffs.
But the Wings were at their worst at times as well. Nicklas Lidstrom used up his quota of one brutal giveaway every five years when he gift-wrapped a chance for Sidney Crosby in the first period on which Crosby failed to score. And after receiving enormous amounts of kudos for his play to this point, Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood didn’t have one of his better efforts of the post-season.
But perhaps the biggest shift was in support players. Going into Game 3, the top two lines on each team were basically playing an even game, but the Penguins were getting killed by the Red Wings’ third and fourth lines. It was time for the Penguins support players to step up and Ruslan Fedotenko and Pascal Dupuis were also a lot more visible with their play than they had been to this point in the series.
And after two shaky outings in Detroit, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury gave the Penguins the kind of goaltending they’re going to need in order to beat the Red Wings. Unlike Osgood, Fleury has to border on spectacular. There were times during the first two periods when the Red Wings were gaining the Penguin zone with incredible ease, while the Penguins had to work harder than a one-armed wallpaper hanger to simply get the puck into the Detroit zone.
“When you can get two power play goals in a key game like this…it was a great thing to have,” said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. “A huge thing to have, in addition to the way our goalie played tonight.”
And they’ll need more of the same, and perhaps a little more consistency from the referees, if they want it to continue.
GAME 3 THN THREE STARS
1. Marc-Andre Fleury
2. Maxime Talbot
3. Sergei Gonchar
Game 3 Defining Moment: Most will point to Gonchar’s game-winner, but the fact that the Penguins had just four shots and were thoroughly outplayed in the second period, yet came away tied 2-2 was an enormous factor in the final outcome.
Notable Number: The number of hits credited to Penguins forward Chris Kunitz (11), indicating the game the official hit keeper was watching was a different one than virtually everyone else in the world.
From the road in Pittsburgh, host Ken Campbell and Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review discuss... Detroit’s struggles on the penalty kill… Fatigue affecting level of play… And Pittsburgh’s support players stepping up.
PRODUCER: Ted Cooper | The THN.com Shootout will appear regularly during the Stanley Cup final.
THN is on the road following the Stanley Cup final and will file daily reports until a champion is crowned. To read other entries, click HERE. Also, check out THN.com's regular video roundtable, the THN.com Shootout for updates from both Detroit and Pittsburgh.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.