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March 25, 2019
Do You Believe in Miracles?
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
The Detroit Red Wings were 35 seconds away from the Stanley Cup. Hockey's ultimate glory was theirs for the taking. The Cup was all polished up. The champagne was on ice. The parade route was planned. And then Max Talbot kicked 'em right in the ol' Charlie Browns.
Suck it, creeps! We're goin' to Game Six!
Trailing 3-2 in the final minute and in need of a miracle, the Pittsburgh Penguins dug deep and struck a blow for the righteous, getting the equalizer from Talbot in a scramble at the right post. That's why he's a superstar, people.
The series was over. It was solid gone. The filthy Wings had stormed back from a 2-0 deficit to score a pair of third-period goals less than three minutes apart to take the 3-2 lead. Michigan native Brian Rafalski bagged the go-ahead goal at 9:23 on a one-timer from the top of the right circle, giving Detroit's comeback a storybook ending.
Once they had the lead, the Wings choked out the Penguins, at one point owning a 12-0 shot advantage in the third period. The outcome seemed inevitable. No matter how much they tried, the Birds couldn't muster anything even resembling a scoring chance. Whatever remained on the clock was a formality. The Penguins were buried. They had dimes on their eyes.
Ah, but these Penguins are a pesky bunch. They never quit. With Marc-Andre Fleury on the bench for an extra attacker, Marian Hossa whipped a puck to the front of the net from the right wing corner. Talbot, standing behind the cage, reached in front and took two cracks at the loose biscuit before stuffing it past Chris Osgood's left pad. Glory, glory, hallelujah! The Pens were marching on!
Just seconds before Talbot's titanic tally, Evgeni Malkin centered the puck directly to Johan Franzen. The Jackass -- oh, wait, I'm sorry -- the Mule had the puck on his forehand but panicked under pressure from Hossa and threw a feeble clearing attempt into the wall. Sidney Crosby jumped on the mistake and forced it into the corner for Hossa, who quickly relayed it in front to create the chance for Talbot. If Franzen gets the clear there, it really is all over. That's a shame.
Detroit dominated the first overtime, controlling play and outshooting the Penguins 13-2. It was all Fleury. He made more big saves than the morning after pill. Pittsburgh rebounded in the second extra session, getting the puck deep and creating turnovers with hard work. Jarkko Ruutu nearly ended it at the 13-minute mark, whistling a shot off the right post.
The Wings regained control at the start of the third overtime. They were hellbent on getting the winner, with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk buzzing around the Pittsburgh zone. The Penguins weathered the storm, though, and things eventually settled down. With Pittsburgh struggling to generate scoring chances, and the Wings powerless to solve Fleury, it was beginning to look like the game would never end. Thank goodness for Jiri Hudler.
The hero of Game Four got wicked careless, high-sticking Rob Scuderi in the mouth. It kind of sucks to have a game like this settled on the power play, but it certainly doesn't suck as much as if it was Detroit getting the power play.
Pittsburgh had four minutes to end it. Sergei Gonchar, who hadn't played since the third period due to an apparent left shoulder injury, came out on the ice like Bobby freakin' Baun. He calmly quarterbacked the man-advantage, setting up Petr Sykora for a one-timer in the right circle. Sykora drilled the shot well wide of the right post, but the puck hit the ref and rattled behind the cage. Malkin grabbed the biscuit and gave it right back to Sykora. The Czech sniper laced a wrister over Osgood's left shoulder. Oh, how there was rejoicing.
This was an unbelievable hockey game. Granted, my feelings would probably be different had Detroit won, but considering the stakes involved, I really don't think it's an exaggeration to say it's one of the greatest NHL games ever played.
I mean, the Cup was on its way to the ice. It was over. The game, the series, the season, it was all over. And now it's just beginning.
Obviously, Hudler's penalty in the third overtime swung things in Pittsburgh's favor. But I keep coming back to Franzen failing to clear the puck in the final minute of regulation. The Cup was on his stick. Maybe all those hits to the head finally paid off.
Marc-Andre Fleury: This was all Fleury. He finished with 55 saves, and about 50 of them were spectacular. Pittsburgh really had no business winning this game. Fleury Hamburglared it right from under Detroit's nose.
"The big answer for us was Marc-Andre Fleury," said Crosby. "I mean, he was the difference. He held us in there, allowed us to keep battling and holding on. So a big part of that win goes to him. He kept us in the game."
This was Patrick Roy kind of stuff. The Wings had no prayer of beating the Flower. Again, considering the circumstances, this has to rank as one of the top 10 goaltending performances of all time. We're talking about a 23-year-old netminder who went into Joe Louis Arena and made 55 saves to keep the Wings from hoisting the Stanley Cup. That's absurd. Detroit outshot Pittsburgh 58-32. Doesn't matter.
Listing all of the Flower's big saves would be impossible, but a few deserve special mention. At 17:12 of the second period, with the Pens leading 2-1, Brooks Orpik fumbled a Crosby pass at the Pittsburgh stripe, handing Valtteri Filppula and Mikael Samuelsson a two-on-one. Filppula made a brilliant pass across to Samuelsson for what appeared to be a layup, only to have Fleury do the splits and kick the shot with his left skate. It was ridiculous.
Fleury robbed Samuelsson again at 5:43 of the third, this time flashing the glove. He used perfect butterfly technique to stone a Hudler backhander about three minutes later. In the first overtime, Fleury robbed Filppula, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and several random people off the street. Holmstrom had a golden opportunity, having all day to fire a backhander from about eight feet out in the slot. That's the toughest save for a goalie to make. It's brutal reading the puck off the backhand in that situation, yet Fleury handled it like a champ.
No matter what happens the rest of the way, no one can ever question Fleury's ability to win a big game. Fifty-five saves in Joe Louis. He put the Cup back in the box.
"He was outstanding tonight," said Michel Therrien. "He was outstanding in overtime, and both goalies obviously played really well. But no doubt Fleury, probably his most important win in his career."
Petr Sykora: The game wasn't exactly going Sykora's way. He was taken off the Malkin line during regulation. He got the gate for a terrible hooking call in the second overtime. And when he took the ice for the decisive power play, he was the only Pittsburgh forward without a shot on goal. But he certainly made his first shot count.
"I hate to see Petr Sykora get that puck late," said Mike Babcock. "You just know it's going in. He's that kind of guy."
Two other cool things. First, Sykora told Pierre McGuire he was going to score the winner earlier in overtime. He called his shot. Unreal.
Second, after the game, he told reporters the Penguins were chowing down on pizza during the overtime intermissions. When asked what kind of pizza, Sykora calmly replied, "Domino's."
Take that, Ilitch! (Sunshine) Little Caesars in the ear with Bea Arthur's (sunshine).
Sergei Gonchar: What can you say about good ol' Sarge? He injured himself during Fleury's astounding split save on Samuelsson. Backchecking like a demon, Gonchar sprinted back and dived to sweep check the Detroit winger, succeeding only in crashing head-first into the backboards. He slid right in like he was on the Wet Banana. His left shoulder and head took the brunt of the impact.
Gonchar was helped off the ice and tried to give it another go before disappearing back to the dressing room. He wasn't seen again until popping up at the end of the bench in the third overtime. As soon as the Birds got the power play, Gonchar was back on the ice. And he played a huge role in setting up the game-winner. Pittsburgh's previous two overtime power plays were positively dreadful without him.
Rest assured, Gonchar will never have to buy another drink in Pittsburgh the rest of his life. He's now part of the city's sports lore.
Ryan Malone: A hometown boy, Malone has always had a special place in the hearts of Penguin fans, but thanks to his effort in Game Five, he's also achieved legendary status.
Having already suffered a broken nose in Game One, Malone caught a Hal Gill slapper right in the face. It busted his nose again and opened a gash on his right cheek. He didn't care. He was back on the ice for the third period, his nostrils stuffed with tissue and his face caked with blood. And he was still belting people and throwing himself in front of shots. It was Rick Tocchet-esque.
"You see guys like Ryan Malone receive a shot in the face and come back," said Therrien. "And it's pretty amazing, the price and the sacrifice that a lot of those guys have to pay."
The rest of the blue line: With Gonchar sidelined for much of the third and all of overtime, the rest of the defense stepped up. Ryan Whitney logged a game-high 50:46 of ice time. Brooks Orpik had five hits and 10 blocked shots in 42:11. Hal Gill was once again a monster on the back line, punishing the Wings for 40:02. Rob Scuderi played 43:42, registering three hits and four blocks. Even Darryl Sydor saw an expanded role, taking 30 shifts. It was a tremendous performance all around.
Michel Therrien: Iron Mike got thoroughly outcoached in Game Four, but he had the Midas touch in Game Five. He kept running Evgeni Malkin out there, and Geno rewarded him with a few impressive shifts and got an assist on the winner. He tabbed Talbot for the extra attacker at the end of regulation. He got the most out of his defense without Gonchar. He stuck with Sykora and gave him the chance to be the hero. And he had the guts to use Gonchar at the point on the power play. That was real ballsy. One mistake out there, and the season's over. Great game by Therrien.
"It's a feeling," said Therrien of his choice to go with Talbot. "Coaches got feelings sometimes. It's rare it doesn't work all the time, but I love Talbot's game. He was on the puck. He's got a lot of energy. And one thing you know, you want to put the puck at the net, and he was always around the net. And honestly it was more of a feeling than anything."
It's more than a feeling, when I hear Michel fail to pluralize nouns. More than a feeling. I begin dreaming, till I see Michel coaching away, I see my Michel coaching away.
Pavel Datsyuk: Another splendid game from Datsyuk. He got his first goal of the series, redirecting a swell Zetterberg pass on the power play to tie the game 2-2. He also turned in another spectacular individual effort, swiping the puck from Sydor along the right wing boards and slicing in front of Fleury before lifting a shot off the crossbar.
Henrik Zetterberg: He played 37:55 on the night, the most of any forward, and he was as quick in the third overtime as he was in the first period. He also led all players with seven shots on goal.
Chris Osgood: Pittsburgh was all over Detroit in the first two periods. Osgood kept the Wings in it. It could have easily been 3 or 4-0 before Detroit got on the board.
Mike Babcock: Babcock pulled some strings in the third, juggling his lines to spark the Detroit comeback. He put Zetterberg with Samuelsson and Franzen, while using Datysuk on a line with Holmstrom and Filppula. The moves paid off with two quick goals and a 3-2 lead.
Oh, and (sunshine) Detroit!