After closing the series gap to one with a 4-2 win, the Penguins were relaxed and loose on Wednesday morning at Mellon Arena. Even Evgeni Malkin, normally reticent and slow to open up to reporters, channeled a little Yakov Smirnoff at the morning press conference.
Asked about playing with linemate Max Talbot, who scored two goals on Tuesday night (one of which Malkin assisted), the Russian center deadpanned: "I'm see how Max play; it's lots of emotion. It's never stop in skate. Yeah, little bit bad hands. He has lot of scoring chance, not score. Just empty net. It's okay. He learns over the summer."
Malkin to Talbot: In Russia, joke make you!
"I'm speechless right now," Talbot said through an ear-to-ear smile.
That could be a first for the normally garrulous Talbot, who has proven to be more clutch than a first-time stick-shift driver. At the end of Game 5 during last year's final, the winger raced onto the ice as the extra man and punched in the tying goal with 35 seconds left, forcing overtime and a Game 6.
"He's a determined guy who lays it on the line," said head coach Dan Bylsma. "It may not be his hands, but it's his determination and his will, and his willingness to battle the guy across from him and get him in those spots."
Talbot also has benefited from playing with a supreme talent like Malkin. With his three assists in Tuesday's Game 3, Malkin has earned the right to poke fun at just about anybody he wants. With a league-leading 33 points, he broke the 15-year-old single-season playoff record by a Russian. Not that Malkin was thinking about it. He didn't even know he had surpassed Pavel Bure, who had 31 for the 1994 Vancouver Canucks, until he read a Russian internet news report.
Malkin, who disappeared like a piece of tissue in the wind during last year's final, has been a "thorn in our side," as Detroit defenseman Brett Lebda put it. The Hart Trophy-finalist, who doesn't have to deal with Detroit's top defenders on a shiftly basis like teammate Sidney Crosby, has had a hand in all but one of Pittsburgh's six goals in this series. Three of his five points came on the power play, where the Penguins look particularly lethal thanks to the pedestrian penalty killing the Red Wings have practiced all season.
Earlier this postseason, Detroit let in at least one power play goal in 13 straight games. Their PK has been successful only 71.4 percent of the time in these playoffs, almost seven points lower than their regular season average, which ranked 25th in the league.
"It's not even the percentage," said Detroit head coach Mike Babcock. "It's when you give them up. . .We've had moments where it's been real good, but it hasn't been great. The bottom line is we need it to be great. It was great against Anaheim in Game 7 when we needed it. It was real good against Chicago when we needed it. Last night we needed it, and it let us down."
What's plaguing the kill? It isn't anything mechanical, say the Wings. They've been positionally sound, blocking shots, doing what typically needs to get done when you're down a man. But Babcock said he was a bit disappointed by their inability to clear the zone on three occasions, which led to the game-winner in the third period of Tuesday's game.
"I don't think it was anything we were doing wrong," Kirk Maltby said of the lackluster results shorthanded. "Sometimes you think you have them stopped and then it takes a funny bounce, and obviously they have the extra guy and it goes right to him on an empty net."
It's a lot mental, a little lack of focus for the full two minutes, that's hurting Detroit. Everything is magnified on the kill, and decisions between a clearing attempt and eating it in a corner can mean the difference.
The penalty kill could get some help if Pavel Datsyuk returns. The center, who hasn't played since Game 2 of the Western Conference Final, skated with the team. Not to be outdone by his countryman Malkin, Datsyuk then cracked a few quips himself, making it easy to mistake Wednesday morning at Mellon for open mic night at the Russian comedy cellar.
After answering the obligatory "How do you feel? Will you be ready for tomorrow night?" by giving away nothing about his status, Datsyuk half-rose from his seat and said, "That's it, right?"
"Oh, I tell you," he continued, "This is not fun to watch. I take in lots of beer. . .[I'd play] wing, center, defenseman, I want to play so bad. I don't want to watch this game again."
He's still a game-time decision, but if he's cleared to play, he'll take some pressure off of teammate Henrik Zetterberg, who played 24 minutes last night as Babcock attempted to chase the Crosby-Zetterberg matchup. Could that mean we'll see a potential Datsyuk-Malkin showdown if the Detroit center plays? Who knows, but this is for sure: They're always more entertaining on the ice than they are at the podium, which should mean big things for tomorrow's Game 4.