Tables turned, Penguins in panic mode
Sidney Crosby passes the puck around the Red Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom in the second period Monday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
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No one should be surprised by what has happened to the Penguins in the first two games of the Stanley Cup final, nor should they be astonished if it happens again tonight when they meet the Detroit Red Wings in Game 3 at Mellon Arena.
The Penguins, once so full of all that seemed necessary to become a champion, have been exposed in the first two games of the final. Not exposed as a bad team, but as a team not worthy of the most cherished trophy in team sports.
No one expected this -- not the players, not the coach, not the fans. Everything had been near-perfect. All phases of their game were humming.
But this is what happens in athletic competition when one team is better than the other or, at least, when one team is playing considerably better at a particular time. The Penguins did this to the Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. The Senators were overmatched, but neither the Rangers nor Flyers had any reason to suspect they would be dispatched in five game or play so feebly in the process.
Now it's the Penguins' turn to feel the pain of inadequacy. They are without a goal in two games. Their superstars have been silenced by the defensively magnificent Red Wings.
Evgeni Malkin entered the series in the midst of a slump but still has been able to take his game to an even lower level. He has one goal in the past six games, which is bad, but his one shot in almost 35 minutes of ice time against the Red Wings is worse. Malkin looks nothing like the player who dominated in the early going of the playoffs.
Even Sidney Crosby, no goals in five games, is being made to look mortal by the Red Wings.
After an optional skate yesterday afternoon, veteran forward Gary Roberts talked about what it's like to play against the Red Wings.
"Because of their experience and skill level, they play a real smart game in their own end," he said. "They just don't give you much room. It's not fun. You feel like you're chasing the puck all night, chasing the puck all over the ice. You use so much energy trying to find the puck that by the time you get it, you're exhausted."
The Penguins thought they were adept at possessing the puck. They look like clumsy amateurs compared to the Red Wings.
At a news conference yesterday, coach Michel Therrien reached deep into the standard bag of excuses and said, "Well, honestly, I truly believe the first game our young team was really nervous."
If that is true, shame on the Penguins. After being eliminated in the first round last season and after blazing through three rounds this season, nerves should no longer be used as an excuse. It's the weakest possible reason for poor play.
There aren't many things Therrien can do. He took Ryan Malone off the Malkin line for the second game and teamed him with Crosby and Marian Hossa. The move made sense, but it produced nothing.
In normal times, playing Crosby and Malkin together is not a sound long-term strategy because it weakens the second line. But Malkin's play has been so poor that that reason is no longer valid. Malkin's linemates -- Malone, who has one shot in more than 36 minutes against the Red Wings, and Petr Sykora, who has not scored in six games -- might benefit from playing beside center Jordan Staal.
Therrien acknowledged he might play Malkin and Crosby together in five-on-five situations.
"We would do it at times," he said. "We do it at times."
No move is too crazy in these desperate times.
If they want to bring home the Cup, the Penguins now face the daunting challenge of needing to win four games of five, with two of them on the road, against a team that has thoroughly dominated them. It's a next-to-impossible challenge, but if the Penguins are looking for any kind of hope, they need only go back to 2003.
In that Stanley Cup final, the Anaheim Ducks were shut out by the New Jersey Devils in the first two games by 3-0 scores. The Ducks did not come back to win, but they did extend the series to seven games, with all four losses coming at New Jersey.
Sadly, the Penguins are in such a deep hole against such a strong opponent that that looks to be the best they can do.
Looking ahead to tonight, Roberts said, "It's a huge game. No one is going to tell you it's not a must win. If you go down 3-0 against that team, it's going to be pretty tough to come back.
"We have to believe if we can win tomorrow night and change the momentum in our favor, we'll be right back in the series."
Sounds easy enough, but first they have to score a goal.
First Published May 28, 2008 12:00 am