By Kostya Kennedy, 

PITTSBURGH -- Seventy degrees under a cloudless, cartoon-blue sky and the afternoon sun is glinting off the dome of the Igloo. The Crosby jerseys are out in force, and the Malkin jerseys, too. You see a few springtime Fleurys even. Autograph-seekers bustle about, pen and puck in hand. Schoolkids are playing hooky and the Penguins are front-page news.

Today in Pittsburgh: optimism's last stand.

The prospects aren't good, of course. Thirty-seven finals have started two-games-to-nil. A full 78% have been over in four games or five. "Let's just say it's an important game," says Penguins coach Michel Therrien of Game 3. If the Penguins lose it, in other words, they aren't coming back.

Therrien and the Penguins like to remind folks that they haven't lost at home in two months, and that in going 8-0 at home this postseason they have often dominated opponents while building a reservoir of confidence that they've now come to draw on. The Penguins are putting their faith in Mellon Arena because after the first two games of the finals, that's really all they have to put their faith in.

Maybe the Pittsburgh crowd really does inspire them. Maybe the Penguins get the on-ice matchups they want. Maybe they score the first goal of the game, and have a chance to protect a lead the way they so efficiently do. Maybe Evgeni Malkin re-asserts himself. Maybe Sidney Crosby fills up the scoresheet. He's due. Maybe, in short, the power of positive thinking can help win a hockey game against a team that thus far looks as if it has no intention of losing one.

"There is no relaxing," Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall told me after this morning's game-day skate. "We are not about to let them have anything if we can help it."

The Penguins have come so far already -- just to be in this Stanley Cup final; heck, just to be solvent -- and they have taken the town. The Post-Gazette had a story, page A1, about a grade school that is using a foil replica of the Stanley Cup to motivate kids to work together as a team. The Penguins, it seems, are already inspiring.

Yet, of course, they want more. When you've come this close to the Cup, you can'lt afford to turn back. No matter how much this seems like a dynasty-in-the making, you never know when you'll get there again. The puck just bounces too funny for certainties.

So maybe local boy Ryan Malone makes good in Game 3. Maybe the Penguins get a few more power plays their way. Maybe they can keep the puck away from the Red Wings for a while. And maybe Marc-André Fleury makes it 19 straight wins on home ice.

There is still time for optimism in Pittsburgh, one more day of it, at least.


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