DETROIT -- Mikael Samuelsson took on big Hal Gill and then took on Evgeni Malkin and lastly, Marc-Andre Fleury.
By the time he was done, Samuelsson had another goal and the Red Wings had the sort of lead they're entirely too savvy to waste. Samuelsson's goals were the stepping stones as the Red Wings went on to claim a 4-0 victory against the Penguins last night at Joe Louis Arena as the Stanley Cup final got under way.
Samuelsson's second goal came 2:16 into the third period. He ran into Gill, at 6 feet 7 and 250 pounds a good 5 inches and 35 pounds bigger than Samuelsson, behind the net, and then darted out front, where Malkin was trying to get control of a loose puck. Samuelsson got to it first, corralling it onto his stick and snapping a shot before Fleury could blink. Just like that, the Red Wings had a two-goal lead and barely a period left to protect it.
The goal was huge, to say the least. The Red Wings had been outworking the Penguins steadily since overworking a penalty-filled and controversial first period. The Red Wings thought they went up 1-0 with 15:20 into the game because Nicklas Lidstrom put the puck into the net, only it was called off by referee Dan O'Halloran, who judged Tomas Holmstrom had interfered with Fleury. Holmstrom's stick did make contact with Fleury, but certainly not in any way that impaired Fleury from making a save. O'Halloran, of course, was also the guy who, when the Red Wings played Anaheim on Feb. 10, called off a Lidstrom goal after ruling that Holmstrom had interfered with Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
We just saw in the Dallas series how huge the first goal is: All through the six games of the Western Conference final, the team that scored first, won.
Lidstrom's non-goal made for a scoreless game, until, that is, Samuelsson emerged from the shadows. He picked up the puck at the defensive side of the red line and raced around Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi, then going behind the net before flipping a backhand between Fleury and the near post at 13:01 of the second period.
Big goals in big games aren't unusual for Samuelsson; a year ago, he closed out the second-round series against San Jose by scoring twice in Game 6. This postseason he hadn't been on much of a tear in Round 1, seemed to get energized in Round 2, but then dropped off in the Western Conference final to the point that in Game 6, he was demoted to the third line, the same place he started last night.
Once they had the lead, the Red Wings exerted control, outshooting the Penguins, 16-4, in the second period.
Getting balanced scoring has been one of the biggest keys for the Red Wings each of the past three times they won the Stanley Cup, in 1997, '98 and '02. Samuelsson can hardly be called a role player, not with all the power-play time he sees on the right point on the second unit, and the fact he was a mainstay on the second line until this week, but his production lagged far behind his minutes. He had just two goals in the first 16 games, plus seven assists, which put him behind eight teammates in the scoring race. Two games ago he was put on a line with Kris Draper and Dallas Drake, his linemates again as the Stanley Cup final got underway.
Helene St. James writes for the Detroit Free Press.