New miracle on ice, perhaps

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And so the Penguins, predicted by many, including this column, to be engaged in their proverbial games of golf by June 4, play on.

The team that looked ripe to be swept after being shut out and embarrassed by the Detroit Red Wings in the first two games of the Stanley Cup final will put on its uniform for a sixth game tonight.

The team that was all but pronounced dead after falling behind, 3-1, in this best-of-seven series remains alive at Mellon Arena, and all things -- including a return to Pittsburgh of the oldest professional sports trophy in North America -- are possible.

It would require better hockey than the Penguins have played to date, but after watching a Game 5 performance that can be perfectly summed up in one word -- heroic -- who among us would say this team can't do just that and win the next two games?

The odds are against them. Winning twice more against the superb Red Wings might seem next to impossible. But not if you saw Game 5, not if you saw the Penguins' 4-3, triple-overtime victory that concluded early yesterday morning. That game, and the individual performances that marked it, could make believers of the most skeptical.

It was the stuff of legends:

• Defenseman Ryan Whitney played 50 minutes, 46 seconds of the 110-minute game.

• Forward Ryan Malone took a sizzling puck to the face that, literally, could have killed him and continued on.

• Defenseman Sergei Gonchar was out for more than the length of a regulation game because of a second-period back injury but returned in the final minute, far from at full strength, to run the power play that resulted in Petr Sykora's winning goal.

• But most of all, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, in a game that may long be remembered as his coming-out party, turned away 55 shots with -- to use the word of his coach -- a "phenomenal' performance.

Down and out doesn't begin to describe the Penguins' condition at Joe Louis Arena Monday night and into Tuesday morning. Thirty-five seconds away from elimination, they tied the score on a goal by Max Talbot. Before and after that score, they withstood an avalanche of shots -- including a bundle of good chances and several excellent ones -- to win on Sykora's goal, which he had predicted he would score.

No one would suggest the Penguins have outplayed the Red Wings in this series. But there is no time of possession in hockey. It's not who controls the puck; it's who scores the most goals.

The Penguins will step onto their home ice tonight swelling with the kind of confidence that comes with such a victory but at the same time trying to forget Game 5. That's behind them. The only game that matters is the one immediately in front of them.

But games like that never leave you.

"I think any time you go through something like that, come out with a win, to see the way everyone kept battling and didn't give up, but it certainly means a lot to everyone," said Sidney Crosby. "Having gone through it, I think we're better for it."

Crosby notched two assists to give him 26 points and the playoff scoring lead. He played 34 minutes, almost identical to Evgeni Malkin, Marian Hossa and Jordan Staal as coach Michel Therrien thumbed his nose at analysts who insisted Crosby needed more ice time if the Penguins were to win.

There's one other thing the Penguins can carry from Game 5 to Game 6 and it could make a monumental difference -- a stronger belief in their goaltender. Fleury had been good, but hardly great through the first four games. He had allowed too many soft goals. Whatever his teammates feelings were, they're different today and so should Fleury's.

"... he really was the savior for us," said Crosby. "[The Red Wings] were pressing really hard, especially the third and the first overtime. And time after time he was answering the call."

Talbot said, "He was so good last night it was inspiring for us."

While all eyes are on Game 6, its immediate predecessor remains fresh in our minds. How fresh it stays will be determined by the immediate future.

As much as we like to look back on memorable sporting events, especially those we saw either in person or on television, and call them all-time classics, that designation has yet to be earned by Game 5. As good as it was, as much as it turned the nation on to this series -- the TV ratings were blockbuster by NHL standards -- it must stand the test of time.

Talbot said it best:

"It won't mean anything if we don't win Game 6."



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