By Allan Muir, SI.com
After pulling out that thrilling victory in Game 3 -- and really, could there have been a more compelling contest to sell the sport on prime time TV than that 3-2 nailbiter? -- the Penguins have to be feeling pretty good about their chances heading into Game 4.
But as they step onto the ice, braced by the roars of 17,000 die-hard supporters at Mellon Arena on Saturday night, they should take a moment to soak up the adoration of the home crowd. Odds are they won't get another chance this season.
Yep. This thing ends in five. Make book on it.
Sure, on paper at least, the Penguins made this a series with Wednesday night's win. And there certainly were plenty of observers who took it as a sign that they have solved the mystery of Detroit's defense, and that after studying the epic beatings they suffered in Games 1 and 2, they've crafted a template for beating the Red Wings.
That win was not the result of a perfectly executed game plan as much as it was a case of a team riding a backs-to-the-wall effort and a few breaks to a win in a game they probably deserved to lose.
To be sure, there were elements of Pittsburgh's approach that gave them a better chance of success. And those elements -- getting the lead, capitalizing on the power play, more disciplined physical pressure on the boards and limiting the odd-man rushes by stepping up in the neutral zone -- all have to be in place for the Penguins to have a chance at evening the series on Saturday. But that won't be enough.
In fact, the Penguins have to improve on at least two of those areas if they hope to stay in the game. The power play, just one of 11 in the series, has spent too much time trying to gain control in the zone and, when inside, too many passes are wasted trying to set up the gimme goal. The one they did score in Game 3, Sidney Crosby's second of the game, was an old fashioned, go-to-the-net, bang-in-the-rebound type that playoff wins are built around. And considering the level of discipline the Wings have displayed through the first three games -- the Pens have been short 19 times, by comparison -- the Pens can't afford to wait for their skill to pay off. To paraphrase the great Donnie Shulzhoffer, they need to go to the net with a big heart and a big bag of knuckles when the opportunity arises.
And while the Penguins improved their physical play, the sense that they dominated was oversold by Brooks Orpik's epic four-hit shift in the third period. In truth, the majority of contact was initiated after the Detroit player had already moved the puck. Punishment has its value, but it's better to create turnovers by hitting the man when he actually has possession.
So Pens fans can gather some heart knowing their team has yet to play its best game. But here's the thing: through three contests, the Wings have yet to play their best game, too. Despite that, Detroit has still managed to be the better team in each of those three contests. There's no reason to believe that trend won't continue in Game 4.
The Red Wings aren't giving anything away. Domination on faceoffs is allowing them to comfortably control the puck. Watching them set up the transition with a series of five- to eight-foot passes instead of trying to stretch the ice is a thing of hypnotic beauty. They're not taking penalties and they're committing so few turnovers that you can count them on one hand. For a team like Pittsburgh that thrives on burying mistakes, there simply aren't enough miscues to work with.
And then there's the slumbering Red Wings offense. While Detroit has outscored Pittsburgh 9-3 in the series, the Wings have done so with little help from Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Both have found other ways to contribute -- Datsyuk's been extremely effective as a banger, of all things -- but it's only a matter of time before their chances are converted. And remember: all eight of Datsyuk's post-season goals have come on the road, including a hat trick in Game 3 against Dallas that essentially crushed any hope of a Stars comeback in the Western Conference Finals. Game 4 is practically set up for a dominant performance from the diminutive Russian.
And then there's the Mule. Johan Franzen, sidelined by concussion-like symptoms in Game 1 and struggling to rediscover his legs in Game 2, was a force in Game 3, twice beating Marc-Andre Fleury. Though only one counted -- the first was blown off as a result of the net being off its moorings -- Franzen used his size and surprising speed to get into the prime scoring area with impunity. Apparently back to full health, he's a physical presence in front of the net for which the Pens really have no legal recourse.
The Wings may be without Tomas Holmstrom, who drew a pair of penalties in Game 3 with his strong positioning out front, but his absence would likely translate to more ice time for Franzen on Saturday night.
Out of the frying pan...
Oh, and then there's the experience factor. Twice before in these playoffs, the Wings have taken their foot off the gas and allowed Nashville and Dallas back into a series they had no business being in at all. But instead of losing momentum, the Wings regrouped and finished the job. In a game that will determine the course of the Stanley Cup final, the ability of this team to draw upon the confidence that came from those wins could be the deciding factor.
Add it all up, and the Red Wings should board a plane late Saturday night with a chance to hoist the old chalice Monday on home ice.