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July 18, 2019
That's More Like It
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
The Penguins played their worst game of the Stanley Cup Finals in Game Three, yet they still managed to take a 4-2 decision thanks to some better luck and that miracle of all miracles: an interference penalty!
With the score tied 2-2 in the third, Jonathan Ericsson got whistled for the Loch Ness Monster of infractions, sliding out of his lane to interfere with Matt Cooke on the forecheck. The Wings have been doing it all series long, but the stripes decided to finally call it, and the Pens took advantage.
Sergei Gonchar got the game-winner at 10:29, hammering a drive from center point through a Bill Guerin screen and over Chris Osgood’s glove. There was much rejoicing.
Pittsburgh didn’t play a terrible game. They were dominant in the opening minutes, took a brief nap, and then rallied to close the first period on even terms. The second period is when things went loopy.
Detroit owned the middle frame, outshooting the Penguins 14-4. And it wasn’t even that close. Pittsburgh generated absolutely nothing. For some reason, the Pens have had a tendency all postseason to lose focus and drift away from their forecheck for brief periods of time. It happened a lot in the Washington series, and it was painfully apparent again in the second period of Game Three.
The Penguins fell into the magnet tar pit trap of trying to make plays at center, the bane of all skilled teams, and that sort of stubborn, pigheadedness is particularly lethal against the Wings, who backcheck like aged sin.
Thankfully, Marc-Andre Fleury was up to the task. No soft goals this night. Fleury came through like a champ in the second, turning aside the onslaught with calm, steady play.
Pittsburgh regrouped in the second intermission. Think of it like Minnesota Fats going in to the restroom to wash up and straighten his tie before coming back to stick it to Fast Eddie. As bad as they were in the second, the Pens were that good in the third, pushing the puck behind Detroit’s defense and going to work. They ended up with a 10-3 edge in shots, and it was only fitting the forecheck led to the decisive power play.
With Detroit leading 2-1, the Penguins somehow got away with having six men on the ice for a full 21 seconds. While it’s easy to bury the refs for the mistake, Mike Babcock and the Detroit bench are equally culpable. They didn’t catch it until real late, and then they couldn’t seem to get anyone’s attention.
“I think we got a good break on that, six guys on the ice,” said Max Talbot, who had two goals on the night, including an empty-netter to close out the scoring. “But then we were going, huh? With six guys we cycled the puck a little bit. It was great (laughing). Yeah, we got some break. It was huge.”
I’ve seen a lot of hockey in my day, and I can never recall a team getting away with six men for that long. How did no one see Mark Eaton sheepishly retreat to the bench? But how funny would it have been if the Pens scored and there were six guys in the celebration? It would have been great watching Bettman and his merry buffoons weasel out of that one.
It was a big moment in the game. The Wings had just taken the lead on a Johan Franzen power-play tally, and another crack with the man-advantage there could have meant a possible 3-1 lead and a stranglehold on the series.
Remember those 21 seconds if Pittsburgh comes back to win the Cup. I know I sure as hell will never let Detroit fans forget.
A lesser coach probably would have peeled the paint off the walls, but Bylsma, always the cool intellectual, preached calm.
”We came in the locker room and our coach got us as soon as we got off the ice,” said Talbot. “Everybody sit down and just relax, guys. Bear down, stay with it. Keep it simple. But nothing needed to be said. We knew how we needed to play to be successful in the third and to win that third period. We played some solid hockey against Detroit in the first three games. We knew how we needed to play to win that game. We knew how important that third period was, and we needed to get it. And we came on strong.”
Osgood, on the other hand, not so much. He got caught deep in his net on Talbot’s first goal. And Kris Letang’s power-play marker to knot the score 2-2 was Charmin soft. Talbot also rang the post from a terrible angle late in the third, narrowly missing an insurance goal. Osgood rebounded to stop Talbot in tight only a few seconds later, but the left-handed Talbot hitting the right post from low in the left circle was testament to Osgood’s spotty performance.
Obviously, goaltending is always important, but it’s especially critical in a series like this where the margin for error is so slim. I know Fleury got ripped, and deservingly so, for three of the goals he yielded in Detroit, but he’s no joke. He’s one of the few netminders capable of stealing games on his own, just ask the Flyers, Caps, and Canes. Or revisit Game Five from last year’s Finals, when Flower went into Joe Louis and made 55 saves to prolong the series.
Game Three was Fleury’s first solid showing against the Wings. He’s got more to give.
Sid came out flying early in the game and got a quality chance right off the hop, slipping through the defense to create a two-on-one down low in the Detroit zone. But instead of taking the shot, Crosby attempted to feather a pass through Lidstrom to I believe Guerin on the right side.
In theory, it was the correct play. The Pens haven’t had one east-west play all series, and the chance was definitely there. If that pass gets through, it’s an easy goal. Osgood isn’t stopping anything that goes side to side. But Lidstrom managed to catch a piece of the puck and squash the scoring chance. Wasted opportunity.
As soon as I saw that, I had a hunch Sid’s head wasn’t right. Considering how much trouble the Pens are having getting clean looks, I would have preferred Crosby take the shot in that situation. Lidstrom is Lidstrom for a reason. Put that puck on net. At worst there’s a rebound chance for Guerin. I just saw it as Sid being passive.
Crosby also had a major share in Detroit’s first goal. Franzen held the puck at the right point and pushed it down the boards. Brooks Orpik charged up the wall at Franzen, and Crosby, apparently thinking Kunitz or Guerin was going to take Zetterberg, went into the corner to chase the puck.
Unfortunately, Kunitz ignored Zetterberg and wandered out towards Franzen. Guerin backed off to cover his point. That left Zetterberg buck naked in the slot. Crosby wasn’t in time to cut the dump-in, and the biscuit slid all the way to Ville Leino along the end boards. And this is when Crosby screwed up.
Instead of busting to the front of the net, Sid went for a Sunday stroll behind the cage. It made no sense whatsoever. Leino barged in front and Gonchar was kind enough to swat the puck right to Zetterberg for the goal.
That’s on Crosby. It was a shocking lack of effort from the hardest-working kid in show business. I have no idea what he was thinking.
The mental fog never lifted. A few minutes after the Pens took the 3-2 lead in the third, Sid brought the puck in on right wing and failed to get it deep, electing instead to fire a prayer into the slot that got sent the other way in a hurry. That’s unacceptable under any circumstances, let alone when your team is protecting a one-goal lead in the Stanley Cup Finals.
And I blame Sid for letting the Pens drift from the forecheck in the second period. Too often, he’s the guy trying to make those fancy plays in the neutral zone. He needs to get the puck deep and work. The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack.
Evgeni Malkin was a beast for Pittsburgh, collecting three assists and commanding the puck all night. Matt Cooke, Brooks Orpik, and Chris Kunitz brought the pain, helping the Pens outhit Detroit 36-17. Kunitz was credited with 11 hits, while Cooke and Orpik had five each. Who wants candy?
The recipe is pretty simple for the Pens. Get the puck deep and work. It’s been the same song all playoffs. And it’s time Crosby steps up. If he’s the best player in the league, like I always say he is, now’s the time to prove it.