Red Wings dominant, but not unbeatable
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DETROIT -- Ten days ago, I wouldn't have given the Penguins or the Flyers or the Rangers or even a best-of compilation of all three even a puncher's chance to beat the Red Wings in this Stanley Cup final.
The presumptive Western Conference champions were playing such a pristine game of keep-away with the puck, coupled with their devoted defensive posture and the swelling confidence of their veteran goalie, Chris Isgood, that it was clear only a team that could dominate in the faceoff circle -- not exactly a description of the Penguins -- could hope to even endure.
But that was before Dallas extended the Wings to six games, before the Penguins buried Philadelphia just as easily as their prior victims.
More than that, it was before last night, when despite long stretches of atypical incompetence, the Penguins found in Joe Louis Arena not only the expected worthy Cup finalist, but a team they can beat in a long series.
Detroit's awfully good, but unbreakable?
"No, I don't think so, that's for sure," said Tyler Kennedy in the minutes after the Wings skunked the Penguins, 4-0, in Game 1. "We played a little bit of our game in the first period, but we got away from it. We just have to keep it simple."
The Penguins skated a blistering first 10 minutes, but seemed to wilt when they couldn't put one biscuit past Osgood on four first-period power plays.
"We didn't come in here expecting an easy series," Sidney Crosby said after his final baptism. "They're a very tight checking team and that's to be expected; that's playoff hockey."
If there were a significant surprise about last night, it was that the Penguins did not exactly come out flying in the final period, when their young legs are supposed to make a difference, as manifested in the playoff fact that they'd outscored everybody after the second period by a total of 21-7.
Make it 21-10.
All three third-period goals went into the Penguins' net, the back-breaker coming from Mikael Samuelsson again, this one due to carelessness in front of Fleury, specifically by Evgeni Malkin, who put the puck on a platter 10 feet in front of the net one second before Samuelsson made it 2-0.
"Definitely our worst performance of the playoffs," said a clearly displeased coach Michel Therrien. "We didn't compete the way we're supposed to compete. It's a good lesson. They played a really great game. They deserve a lot of credit, but in the meantime, we didn't play our game."
The Penguins spent an exceedingly uncomfortable second period, and not just because it was lowlighted by Samuelsson's icebreaking wraparound goal, the one that put the Red Wings ahead, 1-0, and made you wonder how anyone could carry the puck all the way from the red line, into the zone, get on the merry-go-round past Rod Scuderi, and still generate enough closing speed to beat Fleury across the goal mouth.
But it wasn't until that point, 13:01 of the second, that Detroit's immense reputation for puck management seemed self-evident. For the rest of the second period, the Penguins had trouble getting through the neutral zone, had trouble completing more than one pass at a time, and for the first time in Game 1 appeared to have trouble as their only friend.
The Wings outshot the Penguins in the middle period, 16-4. One of those shots, Kris Draper's wicked wrister off a mishandled rebound, hit not one but both posts, and somehow stayed out of the net.
"I thought we had a good first period," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said on CBC's second intermission interview. "We just didn't get a goal on one of those power plays. But after the second, it's like they're just outworking us. They never turn the puck over at the blue line and they make it tough on us because they keep getting behind us."
The puck went into the net only once in the first period, and that was judged to be the result of Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom putting his stick between the legs of Fleury and rendering him unable to react to Nicklas Lidstrom's bullet from the left faceoff circle.
That's what was apparent to referee Dan O'Halloran at any rate, and it made him the object of a spirited verbal assault from Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. Holmstrom went off for goaltender interference, introducing the fourth Penguins' power play of the first period.
That the Penguins took an 0 for 4 was more than a bad omen, it was a colossally wasted opportunity from which they would not recover.
But Game 1 wasn't a total waste for the Penguins, who learned that they're merely up against an awfully good hockey team, not some impenetrable monolith.
"We can compete with these guys," Hal Gill said confidently afterward. "We were just a step behind here, a step behind there, and it cost us. We'll work on some things and be better on Monday."
"We always bounce back," Therrien said. "And I expect us to."
First Published May 25, 2008 1:25 am