Final at same stage, but Penguins see difference

Stanley Cup '09

The situation could not be more similar.

Or, the Penguins believe, much more different.

For the second year in a row, they enter Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final at Mellon Arena trailing Detroit, 2-1, and desperate for a victory to distill the series to a best-of-three.

But that, the way the Penguins see it, is pretty much where the parallels end.

No one is guaranteeing that they'll win Game 4 against the Red Wings this time -- that isn't the kind of brash act this management team or coaching staff would encourage -- but the Penguins profess to have a belief in themselves that goes beyond anything they experienced in 2008.

"We're still a real confident group," defenseman Brooks Orpik said yesterday. "We know we have our work cut out for us. But it's a lot different than last year, that's for sure."

Scouting report
  • Matchup: Detroit Red Wings at Penguins, 8:15 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.
  • TV/Radio: Versus; WXDX-FM (105.9).
  • Series: Red Wings, 2-1.
  • Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Chris Osgood for Red Wings.
  • Penguins: Have won Game 4 in three consecutive series after losing it in each of previous three. ... C Evgeni Malkin leads both teams with 12 shots in series. ... Allowed one power-play goal in past six games.
  • Red Wings: Red Wings: Have not lost two games in a row since May 3-5. ... RW Mikael Samuelsson doesn't have point in five games. ... Have been outshot just nine times in past three playoff runs, but twice in this series.
  • Hidden stat: Road team has won 10 of past 12 overtime games in Stanley Cup final.

That's mostly because this time they weren't overwhelmed in Games 1 and 2 in Detroit, as they were last spring. Detroit outscored them, 7-0, then and, as forward Max Talbot succinctly put it, "dominated us."

Not last weekend, though. Although Detroit again won both games, the Penguins competed with the Red Wings on a level they didn't reach until they were halfway to elimination a year ago.

"We had chances to win both games," Talbot said.

Although the latest losses counted as much as those 12 months earlier, they didn't sting the same. Didn't suck the confidence out of the Penguins and backfill the void with self-doubt.

"We felt we deserved a lot better in Detroit the first couple of games," Orpik said. "[Game 3] was probably our worst of the three."

The Penguins' performance in the second period Tuesday certainly was their worst of the nine played so far.

But it wasn't bad enough to keep them from winning, thanks to some clutch goaltending by Marc-Andre Fleury and a power play that scored on two of three tries.

Getting man-advantage goals figures to be critical to the Penguins' chances of winning not only Game 4, but also the series, because Detroit can be remarkably stingy at even-strength.

The Penguins have scored three five-on-five goals in the series, but one went into an empty net and the other two were rooted in blatant errors by the Red Wings. The kind of mistake the Penguins shouldn't assume Detroit will make with any regularity.

When opponents try to move the puck through the neutral zone against Detroit, they run into what looks like a phalanx of Red Wings.

"If you take a still photo of us getting to the red line and blue line in most of the times we've had the puck at that area, you're going to see four Red Wings around the puck," said coach Dan Bylsma.

Try to stickhandle through, and the puck almost certainly will be stolen. Attempt to pass, and odds are it will be intercepted. Never mind trying to beat Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood; simply getting close enough to establish visual contact with him is a feat.

The best way to get the puck into the Detroit end is to shoot it behind the defensemen and chase it down. Trouble is, nearly all of those guys are excellent skaters, so even a well-placed dump-in assures nothing.

Secure possession of the puck, though, and get some bodies moving around Osgood, and there's at least the potential to manufacture the blue-collar goals both teams believe will be key to the outcome of the series.

"It's not going to be tic-tac-toe," Talbot said. "It's going to be grinding goals. ... It's like a chess match. You try to be patient and create the opportunity, and just put the puck there and go after it. It's a matter of grit and desperation."

Or, failing that, of getting enough power plays to exploit one of the Red Wings' few vulnerable areas, a penalty-killing unit with a success rate of just 71.4 percent.

"I do believe that it's one of the areas we can have a chance to score on," said defenseman Sergei Gonchar, although he added that "they'll make sure they're doing a better job."

The Penguins will try to do the same, because they've learned how much tonight's game means. "We know how big this Game 4 is," Talbot said. "Because we lost it last year, and it was hard to come back from a 3-1 deficit. This year, we're just a little bit more aware."

A little more aware. Part of what the Penguins hope is a big difference.

Dave Molinari can be reached at . First Published June 4, 2009 4:00 AM


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