When his teammates saw Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury deny Henrik Zetterberg from the slot about 3½ minutes into the opening period of Game 6 in the Stanley Cup final Tuesday night, they immediately concluded that he would play well enough to give them a chance to win.
"When Fleury's on his game, like he was tonight, you can tell from the first stop he makes," Penguins forward Max Talbot said.
But it was one of Fleury's final saves during the Penguins' 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings at Mellon Arena – a victory that tied the series 3-3 and sends it to a Game 7 Friday night at Joe Louis Arena – that left the most lasting impression.
With just under two minutes left in regulation and Pittsburgh protecting a one-goal lead, Pavel Datsyuk sprung Dan Cleary behind the Pittsburgh defence. He moved in alone on Fleury [with defenceman Brooks Orpik in futile pursuit], but couldn't get him to commit and, after pulling the puck onto his backhand, failed to get it behind Fleury.
"I knew that could be a turning point if I could make the save," Fleury said. "I tried to be patient and wait for him to make the first move and I got a piece of it."
Enough of it to send the series back to Michigan. The Penguins are 0-3 there in this series, but played well enough in Games 1 and 2 to believe that they're capable of preventing the Red Wings from becoming the NHL's first repeat champions since Detroit did it in 1997 and 1998.
"We have a chance and that's what we were working for," Penguins right-winger Tyler Kennedy said. "Just to get a chance."
How much of a chance they'll have on Friday likely will hinge on how Fleury performs. And while he is a lightning rod for criticism almost any time the Penguins lose, Fleury's teammates and bosses have steadfastly maintained that their faith in him never wavers.
"He's a guy who has come up big in a lot of big games," Penguins rookie head coach Dan Bylsma said. "And there was a handful of times he came up big in this game.
"In the first, there weren't a lot of shots, but there were two by Zetterberg that were big. The breakaway in the third is a pretty big save at a pretty big time for our team.
"That's what Marc-Andre has been able to do for us throughout this playoffs. He's shown that repeatedly."
Show it one more time and a team that looked to be in mortal peril of sitting out the playoffs when Bylsma took over from Michel Therrien in mid-February might be able to earn the franchise's first Cup since 1992.
"It's an unbelievable opportunity," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "We found a way to survive.
"That's what we had to do tonight. And now it's anyone's game.”
No second-guessing Sykora
Bylsma put right-winger Petr Sykora in his lineup for the first time since May 4 because he believed Sykora could give the Penguins some badly needed goal-scoring.
Turns out Sykora didn't manage to launch a single shot at Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood while logging 6:31 of ice time.
Nonetheless, Bylsma had no reason to second-guess his decision to bump Miroslav Satan to open a spot for Sykora because Sykora was tenacious all over the ice and invigorated his teammates when he sacrificed his body to block a shot during the second period.
Sykora was hobbled, but didn't miss a shift and the example he set made a major impression.
"That got the whole bench up," said Orpik, who had a team-high six blocks of his own.
"Petr Sykora can get the puck on his stick and shoot it in the net," Bylsma said. "Turns out tonight he can block the shot and get it out, as well.
"That's why Petr played, to get that one chance to shoot the puck. But he added in other ways tonight."
No place like home
Take history at face value, and you probably would conclude that Pittsburgh's victory in Game 6 has done
nothing but delay the inevitable. After all, the last six times a Cup final has gone to a Game 7, it was won by the home team.
No visiting club has earned a championship with a victory in Game 7 since Montreal did it at Chicago Stadium in 1971. Overall, road teams are 2-12 in Game 7s during the Cup final, with the 1971 Canadiens and the 1945 Toronto Maple Leafs the only clubs to defy the odds.
Not surprisingly, the Penguins aren't terribly interested in any of that.
"Do I care?" Talbot said. "No, I don't."
This, by the way, is just the fifth time the home team has won the first six games of a Cup final. On three of the previous four occasions, the home team captured Game 7, too.
The Penguins tried to get the Matt Cooke-Jordan Staal-Tyler Kennedy line on the ice against the Pavel Datsyuk-Henrik Zetterberg-Dan Cleary unit and did a pretty solid defensive job against it.
"They have a great line up front that does a great job of creating offence," Staal said. "I thought our line – and even a few other lines that were out there – did a good job of containing them."
What none of those other lines did was to generate goals. Staal scored the Penguins' first one and Kennedy got the second, although he was on the ice with Talbot and Ruslan Fedotenko at the time.
Staal opened the scoring 51 seconds into the second period when, while on a 2-on-1 break with Cooke made possible by a suspect pinch by Red Wings defenceman Brett Lebda, knocked in his own rebound for his fourth of the playoffs and second in three games.
"With his skating ability and his size, he can be a force in the defensive zone, he can be a force with his speed through the neutral zone and he can be a force in the offensive zone," Bylsma said. "We saw him do that numerous times tonight, where he was a force in every zone."
Kennedy was visible all over the ice, too. He got his goal when, after taking a pass from Talbot behind the goal line, he curled out around the side of the net, only to have the puck slide off his blade. Osgood knocked it back to him, however, and Kennedy knocked it inside the far post at 5:35 of the third for what proved to be the game-winner.
"I just kept whacking at it and it finally went in," he said.
Kennedy isn't necessarily a guy the Penguins count on to consistently produce critical goals, but they know he's capable of it on occasion.
"That's the storyline of the playoffs, when your team can play well enough that different people can put on the [hero's] cape on any given night," Bylsma said. "Tonight, it was Jordan Staal who gets a big goal here.
"It was a big play on the wall by Matt Cooke to get it out. Then Jordan Staal gets the goal on the 2-on-1.
"Then Tyler Kennedy makes pretty much a goal out of nothing, just in the offensive zone and he takes it to the net and stuffs it home. When your team plays well enough long enough and you put yourself in those positions, different guys are going to be the heroes."
Been there, done that
Although Bylsma has been a head coach in the NHL for less than four months, he does have experience playing in Game 7 of a Cup final, having been part of the Anaheim team that lost to New Jersey in 2003. That should help him as he considers how to best prepare his players for what has become a 60-minute season.
"The best thing you can tell them is about going out and win the game," Bylsma said. "It's not about trying not to lose.
"You try to go out there and play your game. Play the way you've played all year long.
"Don't wait back, sit back and wait for a mistake. You know, you don't want to treat the game differently than any other game.
"So it's about getting to your game and playing the way you've played to that point. And that's a tough thing about a Game 7."
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