Sykora: Penguins face a must-win situation tonight
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury makes save on Red Wings Johan Franzen in the second period of Game 3 at the Mellon Arena. His performance tonight may prove crucial to the Penguins' prospects.
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Go ahead, criticize Petr Sykora for not scoring a goal in seven games.
Give him a hard time for failing to get a point in the past five, too.
But don't accuse Sykora of failing to recognize the significance of Game 4 in the Stanley Cup final between the Penguins and Detroit at 8:08 p.m. today at Mellon Arena.
Some might look at the series, in which the Red Wings hold a 2-1 lead, and conclude that it is critical for the Penguins to win, that their chances of claiming the Cup will shrink considerably if Detroit is able to return home with a two-game advantage.
Not Sykora. He seemed pretty certain yesterday that the stakes are a whole lot higher than that.
- Matchup: Detroit Red Wings at Penguins, 8:08 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.
- Series: Red Wings, 2-1.
- TV, radio: WPXI, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Chris Osgood for Red Wings.
- Penguins: Have not won a Game 4 at home since Round 1 against Philadelphia in 1997. ... C Jordan Staal doesn't have an assist in past 12 games. ... Are outscoring opponents, 21-12, in third period in these playoffs.
- Red Wings: Lost consecutive games in two of first three rounds. ... D Brad Stuart has four-game points streak. ... Have trailed at first intermission twice this spring, including Game 3 against Penguins.
- Hidden stat: Red Wings have had 30 or more shots in 16 of 19 playoff games.
1. Impact of Tomas Holmstrom's status. He is a major nuisance in front of the net, and if he can't play how will it affect the Red Wings' power play?
2. A diversified offense would help. The Penguins have figured out how to score, but counting on one line to carry them is pretty risky.
3. Draw more penalties than you take. A power-play goal or two would ease some of the offensive pressure on Evgeni Malkin, left, and the forwards.
"For us, basically, [Game 4] is a do-or-die game," he said. "We know that if we can come up with a win, there is a lot of pressure on them, going into Game 5 [Monday at Joe Louis Arena].
"Basically, the whole Stanley Cup playoffs is going to [come down to] the game [tonight]. We've worked so hard to get to this position. This is a big chance for us, to tie it up, 2-2. You never know what's going to happen then."
Precedent, it should be noted, doesn't favor the Penguins. They have lost Game 4 in each of their past two series, and in 10 of their past 11. Seven of those defeats have come at Mellon Arena, although they are 9-0 there in these playoffs and have won 17 consecutive games on home ice.
While that run of home victories is legitimate cause for optimism, some offensive production from their second and third lines would be even more encouraging.
Going into the series, it seemed reasonable to think that if the respective No. 1 units -- Pascal Dupuis-Sidney Crosby-Marian Hossa for the Penguins and Henrik Zetterberg-Pavel Datsyuk-Tomas Holmstrom for Detroit -- spent most of the series matched against each other and basically broke even, the Penguins' offensive depth up front could tilt the final in their favor.
Trouble is, the only point anyone from the Penguins' second or third lines has gotten in this series is Ryan Malone's second assist on Crosby's power-play goal in the Penguins' 3-2 victory in Game 3.
Malone's colleagues on the No. 2 line, Sykora and Evgeni Malkin, have been shut out, as has the No. 3 unit of Max Talbot, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy.
If that trend persists, the Penguins' prospects for extending the final beyond five games, let alone winning it, will diminish dramatically.
"It's up to everybody," left winger Gary Roberts said. "Teams don't win with one line or one guy. It takes different goals from different lines at different times."
The Penguins enjoyed that kind of diversity through the first three rounds, when no fewer than 14 players recorded a goal, and eight guys had a game-winning goal.
"When one line was not playing that well or was contained, the other lines stepped in," Talbot said. "That's how we need to win some games."
Staal said that "everyone on this team knows they can contribute offensively," and that "it's just a matter of time before guys step up."
That catch, of course, is that there isn't much time left. At most, there are four games remaining, and likely fewer if the Penguins can't generate some balanced scoring.
"It's up to the secondary scoring to steal one or two goals, here and there," Sykora said. "And there wouldn't be a better time than to get it [than tonight]."
It's no coincidence that so many of the Penguins have slumped lately. The Red Wings play ferocious team defense, routinely breaking up offensive rushes between the blue lines before they get started.
"They have a great system that everyone works hard on," Staal said. "They don't give you a whole lot.
"They clog up the neutral zone real well and do a good job of playing hard defense."
That's why coach Michel Therrien is trying to get skilled defensemen like Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney more involved in the offense, although choosing the right time to do so is imperative.
"If you have a chance to make it a four-on-three or a four-on-two, you can go," Whitney said. "But, if you're joining the rush and a [defensive] guy is right with you, what's the point?"
The Penguins' defensemen, like their forwards, will have to be smart, patient and opportunistic tonight.
Players on both teams understand how important it will be to get the first goal. And no one knows better than Sykora that it's even more crucial for the Penguins to get the winning one.
First Published May 31, 2008 12:00 am