Collier: Staal-ing tactics save the day
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Dan Bylsma walked to the bench before Game 4 on thin ice, literally, metaphorically, every which way but loose. He was wondering whether a couple of essential hockey elements that his Penguins were clearly capable of would ever turn up in real life again.
He probably had forgotten the last time he had seen a short-handed goal, for example, because it certainly wasn't in this postseason.
Bylsma could have been forgiven for not remembering the last time the Penguins scored any strain of goal in the second period, because it surely wasn't in this Stanley Cup final.
But there was one thing, one immensely important thing, that the head coach not only remembered, but had what he called "assurance" for: He remembered what Jordan Staal had said about 11 hours earlier.
"I thought Game 3 was much improved over Game 1 and Game 2 from Jordan," Bylsma explained after the morning skate. "Again, each team poses a different kind of obstacle down low in the offensive zone, which is where Jordan is really good. And some teams are physical, some teams are a little more passive-zone type of defensive-zone coverage.
"For a guy like Jordan, who needs physical contact to be good down low, to protect the puck, it's not there. Another area where the game is tough against Detroit is the neutral zone. They have guys back, four guys back a lot. So the speed through the neutral zone he did get in other series, it's tougher to come by right now. Those are areas we all have to fight through.
"He was better in Game 3, and he assured me he'd be better in Game 4."
And so he was, and now that Motown Stanley Cup parade is officially Staal-ed.
With the Penguins killing piggy-backed hooking minors to Evgeni Malkin and Brooks Orpik midway through the second period, Staal swooped in on Chris Osgood, held off Brian Rafalski and flung one into the net, his third goal of the playoffs but the first of his career that looked as though it might change history.
"It felt pretty good," Staal grinned. "Max [Talbot] made a great play to get it to me and I saw that Rafalski was kind of flat-footed, so I just kind of buried my head and went for it. It was one of the biggest ones of my career for sure, especially in a game like that. It's pretty exciting."
To get any kind of grip on the significance of Staal's goal last night, you need to examine the way in which Game 4 and the Stanley Cup itself were slipping away from Bylsma's team at the time Staal found the net at 8:35 of the second period.
Further, you need to know what Staal's goal ignited: a monumental rush of adrenaline that triggered three Penguins goals in five-and-a-half minutes and a resultant 4-2 lead.
"We are where we need to be now," said defenseman Hal Gill after the Penguins clipped the Red Wings by that very 4-2 margin for the second game in a row. "A lot of things go into changing this series, but seeing Jordan go down there, driving to the net, that was really big for us."
The counterbalancing deflation under way on the Detroit bench led directly to a two-on-one involving Malkin and Sidney Crosby, and Crosby did not waste that opportunity, pumping in his 15th goal of the playoffs to put the Penguins ahead. Barely four minutes later, Crosby and Chris Kunitz went tic-tac-toe with Tyler Kennedy, who put the eighth Penguins goal in two games behind the quivery Osgood.
"Jordan's goal was huge," Crosby sighed. "They had a little bit of momentum at that point. They had two power plays right in a row and it was three minutes into the power plays before he scored. That was a huge momentum shift. We bounced back right away after that."
That the Penguins could manage a two-goal lead against Detroit was not news, but the circuitous path to last night's lead was fraught with peril.
Jonathan Ericsson understood the implications of the first-period whistle in his ear almost immediately, and so did the throbbing Mellon Arena sellout. No wonder the Detroit defenseman skated up to the referee as though he had just been told he needed a second laproscopic appendectomy in three weeks. All Ericsson had done was high-stick Kunitz at 16:27 of the first period, but the Penguins already had a 1-0 lead on a power play goal from Malkin, and now had a second man-advantage against Detroit's combustible penalty-killing unit.
But 10 seconds into the Penguins' power play, Bill Guerin committed the same sin, and Rob Scuderi chose that situation for perhaps his only glaring mistake of these playoffs, a horrendous giveaway by the Penguins best defenseman to Red Wings rookie Darren Helm, who buried it to tie the score.
The crowd, geared up for a 2-0 Penguins grip, was looking at 1-1 and a series of blown opportunities that eventually led to a 2-1 deficit.
"We had the game going pretty good," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. "The crowd was pretty quiet, and [Staal's goal] hurt us for sure. It sucked the life out of us."
And it was practically assured.
First Published June 5, 2009 12:00 am