By Allan Muir, SI.com
DETROIT -- Young teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins need to learn a lesson or two along the way to becoming championship caliber. It's just that the first game of the Stanley Cup finals is a lousy time to pick up a few pointers.
After being schooled 4-0 by the Detroit Red Wings in a game coach Michel Therrien called, "our worst performance of the playoffs," the Eastern Conference champs find themselves trailing in a series for the first time in these playoffs.
"We didn't compete like we're supposed to," he said to the press after the game. "This was a good lesson for us."
It's also one they could have avoided if they'd only paid more attention to what these Wings did to Dallas in the previous round. Detroit is a team that has the talent to beat anybody. But as the Stars learned, Detroit doesn't win on talent. They win on effort, on intensity through all three zones.
The Pens lost Saturday night because they got outworked, plain and simple. Especially in the second and third periods when Detroit completely controlled the play, holding Pittsburgh's star-studded offense to just seven shots, and maybe, maybe, three decent chances.
Still, the game was there to be won, or at least controlled, in a first period that should serve as the one positive to be taken from a nightmarish loss. While the veteran Wings stumbled out of the gate (not quite as literally as did Marc-Andre Fleury as he came out to start the game), the Penguins were flying. Their speed had the Wings back on their heels, their forecheck was creating turnovers and forced Detroit to take four straight penalties. Late in the period, the Pens were a man up for six minutes over a span of 7:18.
For a power-play unit that came into this series clicking at nearly 25 percent, that should have been just enough chances to get them on the board. That might have turned the game in their favor, given that the Pens are 10-0 when scoring first this spring. They managed nine shots and at least three more close misses with the extra attacker, but not one eluded Chris Osgood.
And that was pretty much it.
What the Stars finally learned, too late as it turned out, is that these Wings don't give you much. When they control the puck much of the night, as they did Saturday, they're going to get a lot of shots. Conversely, you're not. And that means when you see an opening early on, as Marian Hossa did, and Sidney Crosby did twice, you have to cash them in and then try to weather the storm. That's lesson No. 1. When you get a chance, you better bury it.
Instead, it was the Wings who scored first. Twice, actually. Pavel Datsyuk, easily the most dangerous man on the ice with five hits to match his five shots, found Nick Lidstrom strolling in from the blue line, allowing the veteran defender to blast one past Fleury at the 15:20 mark of the first. But after another brutal goalie interference call on Tomas Holmstrom -- whose reputation is more a liability than his actions -- negated the goal.
After that, the Wings began to assert themselves physically, led by the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall, who looks more and more like Vladimir Konstantinov with each passing game. They finally notched one that counted midway through the second period after four consecutive dominating shifts culminated in an unassisted Mikael Samuelsson wraparound. And as they began to dictate the play, the Pens game began to crumble. They started chasing the puck. They started taking penalties. And while the Wings scored on just one of six chances, they benefited from each opportunity. All that time on the power play ensured that both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would remain planted on the bench, a place from which they can do very little harm.
That meant Jordan Staal, who fattened his stats on the penalty kill, spent more time on the ice than any other Pittsburgh forward. And with all due respect to the impressive 19-year-old pivot, that's pretty much a guarantee of a loss right there. And that's lesson No. 2. You have to stay out of the box, and you do that by keeping your feet moving.
Lesson No. 3? This team isn't just Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and a cast of drones. While the Pens managed to keep them off the scoreboard until Zetterberg scored a meaningless goal in the game's final seconds, they were beaten by depth players like Samuelsson (who doubled his playoff goal totals with another unassisted goal early in the third) and Daniel Cleary, who outlegged Kris Letang to a loose puck for a shorthanded goal late in the period. With that kind of depth, you can't let up for a second just because 13 and 40 are catching their breath.
Giving away a Cup finals game is an expensive price to pay to learn those lessons. We'll know by Game 2 whether it was worth it.