DETROIT -- Niklas Kronwall, the hockey equivalent of a surface-to-hairline missile, had Evgeni Malkin measured for some serious mayhem early in the third period of last night's typically frantic Game 1.
Malkin was flying along the boards in neutral ice, his head lowered, and his immediate future almost sure to include unconsciousness. Kronwall locked on him and swooped toward coordinates high on Geno's white sweater. In the last millisecond before they collided, Malkin lifted his chin and lowered his shoulder, mitigating the impact by, oh, 70 percent or more.
Had Malkin not looked up, the result would have made Kronwall's hit at the same spot on the ice against Chicago's Martin Havlat last week look like a moonlight kiss. Havlat was unconscious before he hit the ice. Malkin escaped to play in tonight's Game 2.
"We know that's his game," said the Pens Craig Adams in the minutes after Detroit went up 1-0. "You've got to be aware of him at all times, but that's just the type of game this was. The ice wasn't very good, so the puck was bouncing in the neutral zone and guys were having trouble corralling it."
And so it was that the least anticipated development of this opening chapter was the quickness with which both teams turned the ice surface into Detroit Rock City.
Brad Stuart rocked Ruslan Fedotenko. Brooks Orpik freight-trained Marian "I wanted to have the best chance to win the Stanley Cup and I felt Detroit is that team" Hossa. Stuart plastered Kris Letang against the window.
But most tellingly, Sidney Crosby took every opportunity to bang Henrik Zetterberg, who skated away with the Conn Smythe Trophy in this matchup last spring.
Crosby, widely considered a pretty boy by many of his Motown detractors -- they don't call him Cindy Crosby for nothing -- spun Zetterberg to the ice with a perfectly placed shoulder near the red line late in the first and the Pens generally took their cue from the Captain all night.
"There is no revenge factor," Crosby had said after yesterday's morning skate. "It's a new year. It's a new opportunity. If we were playing anyone else we'd still feel the same way. We're four wins from the Stanley Cup. I don't think there's any extra motivation needed."
It was not as though the Wings had forgotten the four thunderous hits Orpik delivered on one shift in Game 3 at Mellon Arena last year, but when teams of pretty much unparalleled skill spend as much of Game 1 smacking the snot out of each other, it signals that we might be in for more violence than anyone predicted.
"I thought we were physical whenever we could be," said Orpik, who delivered three of the most memorable among a staggering 82 hits by both teams (Matt Cooke had six. Detroit's Darren Helm eight). "We didn't run out of position to be physical, but right from the start it was very physical. We're ready to get back at it. I wish we could start the second game now."
Crosby, again the most prominent example of unforeseen contentiousness, had three times as many hits (3) as shots after two periods. Perhaps you'd like to see the opposite.
"Crosby looked very, very determined," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. "He went head to head with Zetterberg in the neutral zone and got him pretty good. He's just being really competitive. The tempo in the first period was unbelievable."
Had it not been for Stuart's ridiculous bank shot off the rear boards and the rear stitches of Fleury's right pad in the first period, the Wings would have trailed after one, and in a curious statistical inversion, they have not won in these Stanley Cup playoffs when trailing after one.
Same with after two.
But even as the Penguins were hitting every red shirt in cross traffic, the Wings kept hitting inanimate objects to their stunning benefit.
Johan Franzen, who doesn't need any help putting the puck in the net (The Mule has 24 goals in his last 33 post-season games), got just the right kind of kiss from the rear boards behind Fleury to put a second consecutive bank shot goal behind the Penguins goalkeeper in the final minute of the second period.
But that was nothing compared to the airborne puck Justin Abdelkader settled next to Jordan Staal, who simply could not find it on his radar, and wristed it past Fleury for a 3-1 lead less than three minutes into the final period.
There's a big gap this morning, between Penguin frustration and Penguin discouragement. The Penguins skated stride for stride with the Wings, banged with them muscle for muscle. They just lost the always unpredictable goofy goal factor.
"Nobody's going to just skate by when they have a chance to finish a check," Fedotenko said. "When you get a chance to set a tone, you do it."
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.