By Kostya Kennedy, SI.com
Just getting to the Stanley Cup Final might have been enough for the aspiring young Penguins. They'd bull-rushed through the Eastern Conference after all, and if they were cowed by mighty Detroit, well, they'd just take the final step next year.
Winning Game 3 was even more validation: not only were they here, they belonged! Go out in five games, the sages agreed, and the Pens would still get a hero's welcome in Pittsburgh, and still be the trendy choice to corral the Cup in 2009.
Of course, the Penguins never quite saw it that way. They only saw a shimmering, outsized silver Cup still within their reach. After Game 3, defenseman Brooks Orpik, he of the quadruple-hit shift that had the Igloo crowd pounding their seats in appreciation, talked about how over the course of a long series a lot of body-bumping by the Penguins might wear out the Red Wings. He was thinking ahead.
So was Sidney Crosby, in a way, when he said, "We only have to win one" before Game 5 on Monday night -- as entertaining a game an NHL finals has produced since, well, Game 3. (Before that one you've got to go back a long way.) Crosby meant that Pittsburgh, down three games to one, only had to win one at a time to get to where he and the Penguins wanted to go.
Now we're at Game 6 and by all rights the Penguins should be finished. They could have folded many times in this series, certainly when down 3-2 in the final minute of regulation on Monday night. No one would have blamed them. The confident Red Wings, after all, were on their way to out-shooting them 58 to 32.
But the Penguins pulled their goalie and got a goal -- Maxime Talbot on the stuff with only 35 seconds left -- and suddenly it was anyone's game. No one was folding anything.
Triple-overtime games tend to have a little bit of magic in them -- how else to explain the game-winner being scored by a guy, right wing Petr Sykora, who just a period earlier had told broadcaster Pierre McGuire that he was going to be the one to score it. Calling his shot, as it were. Move over Babe, here comes Petey.
The Penguins may have been the second-best team for much of Monday night's 110 minutes of hockey, but they had the best goalie. Marc-Andre Fleury was stopping pucks with his extremities. "A toe save and a beauty!" That was inspiring, as was the sight of power forward Ryan Malone, bloodied by a shot in the second period, back for the third, his face all stopped up with cotton. And there was Sergei Gonchar, the Penguins' minutes leader throughout the playoffs, leaving the game as well after going headlong into the endboards. That was in period two. By the time Sykora went all Ruthian on us, Gonchar was back.
Now the never-say-die Penguins will try for a little more magic in Game 6 - at home, where they're wont to get it. Home is where Crosby scored twice in Game 3 last week, and where Adam Hall banked the winner in off Chris Osgood's back. Home is where, in the sea of white shirts, Penguins fans hold up signs that say "We Believe."
Lose in six and the Penguins have still had themselves one hell of a year. No doubt about it. Just not yet, not with Stanley still within reach one game at a time.