Cook: Have Red Wings cracked? Penguins better not think so

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DETROIT

At some point midway through the second period Thursday night, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik took at peek at the Detroit Red Wings' bench and couldn't believe his eyes. "I think it was [teammate Mark Eaton] who pointed it out," he said. "All their guys, you could see they were slumped over. They had no energy. They seemed to be tired."

In the third period of what would soon become a series-evening, 4-2 Penguins win in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final, Orpik said he saw something else that shocked him. The Red Wings appeared to be in disarray. They weren't just yapping at the Penguins. They were yapping at each other.

Whoa.

"One of the things they do really well is play whistle to whistle and don't get involved in the extra stuff and the talking," Orpik said. "We've tried to incorporate that into our game. We have great respect for that team. They're real pros.

"But once we made it 3-2 and especially 4-2, they started talking a lot more. I thought that played right into our hands. If they want to waste that energy, that's fine with us."

Sounds like the Red Wings might have cracked, eh?

Please.

Not a snowball's chance in you-know-where.

The Penguins had better know that or they are on the verge of making a terrible mistake. They had better be ready for the Red Wings' best in Game 5 tonight. The Red Wings are proud defending Cup champions. They are back home at Joe Louis Arena, where they won Games 1 and 2 with some ease and where they have beaten the Penguins in four of the past five Cup final games going back to last season, the exception being the Penguins' epic, 4-3 win in three overtimes in Game 5 a year ago. They also figure to get a big boost from the likely return of star center Pavel Datsyuk, their Hart Trophy candidate as NHL MVP.

Cracked?

The Red Wings?

Hardly.

But that doesn't mean that tonight isn't the Penguins' best chance to get the road win they need to win the Cup. Orpik and Eaton weren't the only ones who thought the Red Wings looked tired in Game 4. "We need to get rested ... They had more energy than us," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said, although he blamed that perception more on the game flow -- the Penguins scored three goals in a 5:37 span in the second period -- than any kind of conditioning problem with his hockey club. Center Henrik Zetterberg -- the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP when the Red Wings took down the Penguins in six games last spring -- seemed especially fatigued, Orpik noted. "Chasing Sid [Crosby] all over the ice ... Sid is so unique. His feet never stop. His motor never stops. He's relentless. Just battling him takes a lot out of you."

Zetterberg is just 28 and figures to bounce back quickly, especially if Datsyuk -- a terrific two-way player who has missed the past seven playoff games with a broken foot -- can help out defensively against Crosby and the Penguins' other star, Evgeni Malkin. But many other Detroit players are older. Game 5 will be their fifth game in eight nights. The younger, fresher Penguins need to jump on them hard because the schedule eases significantly after tonight. There are two off days before Game 6 Tuesday night at Mellon Arena, then two more before a potential Game 7 Friday night back in Detroit.

It would help greatly if Crosby and Malkin could stay on their impressive rolls. They had chances in Games 1 and 2 but couldn't capitalize, resulting in just Malkin's one goal and one assist. Their results were much better in Games 3 and 4: Crosby had a goal and two assists; Malkin, a goal and four assists. Malkin clearly was the best player on the ice in Game 4.

But momentum is a funny thing in hockey. It's only as good as your goaltender in the next game. That puts the pressure tonight squarely on the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury, who was so-so in Games 1 and 2 and brilliant in Games 3 and 4. It doesn't matter how tired the Red Wings are if they can get a couple of soft ones past him.

Do you believe in deja vu?

Fleury was at his best in Game 5 in Detroit last season. "The best I've ever seen him play," Orpik said. "The save he made on the two-on-one on [Mikael] Samuelsson is definitely the best save I've ever seen." The Penguins hope to play much better in front of Fleury tonight than they did in that Game 5 -- they could be in some trouble if they allow 58 shots again -- but they fully expect him to bail them out when they do mess up.

"We have complete faith in Flower. He's been there all year for us," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "We know he'll bring his 'A' game. Hopefully, the rest of the team will do the same."

The outcome of the series depends on it.

I like the Penguins a lot to win in six games, not so much if it goes seven.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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