The Stanley Cup won’t be awarded Thursday night at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, but it effectively might be won then.
Detroit enters Game 4 of the Cup final with a 2-1 lead in the series and, if the Red Wings add to their advantage this evening, Pittsburgh’s challenge will morph from imposing to near-impossible.
Conversely, if Pittsburgh manages to tie the series, it would enter Game 5 Saturday at Joe Louis Arena (where the Penguins performed well for most of Games 1 and 2) with confidence born of having posted back-to-back victories against the defending champions.
"It’s obviously a huge game,” Pittsburgh centre Jordan Staal said. “(The series being) 2-2 sounds a lot better than 3-1. We all understand that it wouldn’t be easy to go back into Detroit down, 3-1.”
That kind of deficit would be daunting against any opponent, let alone a top-quality one that has lost consecutive games just once so far in these playoffs.
“You never want to go down three because then you’re almost leaving it to chance because any team is good enough that it can win on any night,” left-winger Chris Kunitz said. “Putting yourself in a 3-1 hole is obviously difficult.”
Consequently, the Penguins expect to play as if their season is on the line because, for all practical purposes, it is.
“I expect the mindset to be that it’s like a Game 7, for both sides,” defenceman Brooks Orpik said. “It’s obviously more important to us, but if you’d ask somebody on their side, I think this is probably the most important game of the series.”
Long time coming
Pittsburgh centre Evgeni Malkin has a chance to become the first player since the Penguins’ Mario Lemieux in 1991-92 to lead the NHL in scoring in both the regular season and the playoffs.
Malkin, who claimed the Art Ross Trophy with 113 regular-season points, enters Game 4 with 33, four more than teammate Sidney Crosby.
In addition to Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky (1982-83, 1983-84, 1984-85, 1986-87), Guy Lafleur (1976-77, 1977-78) and Phil Esposito (1968-69, 1971-72) are the only players to win both in the same season.
The play of Pittsburgh’s third line was a key component in its success during the first three rounds of the playoffs – highlighted by the work Jordan Staal did against his older brother, Eric, of Carolina during the Eastern Conference final – but it wasn’t much of a factor during the first two games of the Cup final.
The unit, which has Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy on Staal’s wings, rebounded with a strong performance during Pittsburgh’s 4-2 victory in Game 3, and Staal said Thursday morning that he expects his line to play to – or above – the same standard in Game 4.
“I thought we played really well,” he said. “I thought we had a few good opportunities to score some goals, and played the right way. We’ve been working hard. It finally paid off.
“It wasn’t a one-game wonder. We want to keep doing it.”
If that line does, it likely will be because Staal is providing the impetus. While he isn’t as much of a difference-maker as Malkin or Crosby, he is a critical part of Pittsburgh’s personnel mix.
“I thought Game 3 was much improved over Game 1 and Game 2 from Jordan,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “Each team poses a different kind of obstacle down low in the offensive zone, which is where Jordan is really good.
“Some teams are physical; some teams (play) 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. And it's just been a bit of an adjustment from the last series to this series.
“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 that he did get in other series, it's tougher to come by right now. Those are areas that we all have to fight through.
“He was better in Game 3, and he assured me he'd be better in Game 4 today in morning skate.”
The major issue heading into Game 4 – aside from who will win it, of course – is whether Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk will make his first appearance of the series.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock made it clear that he anticipated having Datsyuk – “Pavel already told me that he’s warming up and planning on playing,” he said after Detroit’s morning skate – and the Penguins seem to expect him to play, too.
Whether it will have a significant impact on Pittsburgh’s approach to the game is another matter, even though the Penguins readily acknowledge Datsyuk’s status as one of the game’s finest players.
“I don’t think it changes anything for us, to be honest,” Orpik said. “He’s just another guy, but at the same time, he buys into the system like the rest of the guys on that team do. He’s just a little more skilled than some of them.”
Kunitz, who saw a lot of Datsyuk while playing for Anaheim, largely agreed.
“We can’t control if he’s in the lineup, or when he’s in the lineup,” he said. “We have to play our game, play tough on everybody.”
Kunitz leaves his mark
Kunitz has played almost exclusively alongside Crosby since being acquired from the Ducks, but after an early surge of goals, hasn’t done much scoring and enters Game 4 with just one in 20 games during these playoffs.
Nonetheless, Bylsma professes to be satisfied with what he’s getting from Kunitz, mostly because he’s contributing the physical play which was one of things that attracted the Penguins to him initially.
“I don't know what the NHL stats were (after Game 3) for his hits,” Bylsma said. “I think they were 11. I think we had them at 13, the way we count them. That's a lot of leaving a mark. That's leaving your mark in a lot of different places.
“That's what you count on from the guy. Leaving a mark, being a presence on the forecheck, going and driving to the net. You know, we're facing a very good team. They are diligent defensively. They're diligent in the (defensive) zone and quick to get out of there.
“If you take a still photo of what it looks like in the neutral zone for our team as we execute through the neutral zone, you see four guys back a lot. So while we're trying to create offence, we also have to manage the puck well because they are diligent and having four back.
“We need to keep at our game. Keep Chris Kunitz with 13, 14 hits and keep leaving his mark. It's a seven-game series, and we've got to play it like we're initiating and investing for seven games.”
Ready and waiting
Mathieu Garon, the Penguins’ backup goalie, has been almost completely ignored during these playoffs, mostly because Marc-Andre Fleury is the only goaltender Pittsburgh has used.
Garon, though, realizes his role – and profile – would change dramatically if he is called upon to replace Fleury, which is what motivates him to continue practicing hard every time he steps onto the ice.
“I don’t want to think too much,” he said. “I just want to have good practices and feel good. Physically, I’m feeling great. Obviously, if I had to play in a game, it would be a challenge, but at the same time, you just want to keep it simple.”
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