Game four of the 2009 Stanley Cups was the most important game ever played by the Penguins' young guns, surpassing even Game Three. Win and they would be positioned for a final push towards hoisting their first Stanley Cup. Lose and they would be perfectly positioned to start making tee time reservations.
For the same reasons, the game was also important for the Red Wings. Win and they've got the young Penguins on the ropes heading back to Detroit. Lose and they get to drag their tired bodies back to Detroit having lost all momentum.
As such, the two teams played another game of determined hockey. In the end, the better team won with the Penguins riding an explosive second period surge to the victory.
The three goal explosion in the second period was a work of art. I hadn't been that excited since watching the Steelers' James Harrison rumble a hundred yards up the sideline to close out the first half in the Super Bowl. These are my observations from Game Four:
1. Henrik Zetterberg is running out of gas and I'm not all sure that he'll be able to refill the tank before game five. A lot of commentators have noted that the Red Wings looked tired in this game. I don't think Detroit as a team looked tired until the third period.
But, they had some uncharacteristically sloppy moments that were likely attributable to fatigue. This was especially true of Zetterberg. He truly looked gassed. He has had the unenviable assignment of trying to blanket Sidney Crosby throughout the series and he has done a fantastic job of it, making Crosby's life plenty miserable at times.
But, it clearly has taken a toll on him. That sword is cutting both way. If he can't find some fresh legs before Game five, the Red Wings may be in trouble.
2. The Wings badly need Pavel Datsyuk back. The Red Wings strategy in this series has been to neutralize Crosby and they continue to use three of their top defensive players to try and do it.
But, with the emergence of Evgeni Malkin as a playoff force, it is not a strategy without significant risk. It is a zero sum game. If those players are focused on shutting down Crosby, they aren't out there to match up against Malkin and they aren't as effective in pushing the action offensively.
With Datsyuk playing at 100 percent, the Wings would have the ability to do a better job of limiting Malkin's damage. And with Datsyuk out, Zetterberg is putting in too many minutes. While beer may be the drink of choice with hot wings, if Datsyuk continues to chug beer as this series progresses, that will be a really bad development for these Wings.
3. Neither team has yet to dominate a game. I personally felt like the Penguins were the better team in the first two games even though they lost. On the flip side, the Red Wings were the better team in game three and also lost. Game four was something of a wash.
The Red Wings generated more shots but the Penguins generated better scoring opportunities and, frankly, looked like they were having a lot more fun out there. I don't want to overplay the fatigue angle, but the team wearing red did not look like the Red Wings in the third period of game four.
4. The better goaltender has won all four games. Chris Osgood looked superhuman at times in the first two games while Marc-Andre Fleury struggled. When the series shifted to Pittsburgh, the two traded roles with Osgood giving up some soft and stoppable goals in game three.
It is hard to blame him for any of the Penguins' goals in game four. This series is a reminder that when two excellent teams matchup, the goalie play takes on added significance.
5. Regardless of point totals, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have both had a fantastic series to date. Malkin has been a force on both ends of the ice in every game. He doesn't look at all like the player who struggled in the finals in 2008.
The Red Wings, with so many of their top players committed on Crosby, have had a hard time finding an answer for Malkin. Malkin has already notched more points over a
playoff run than any other Russian player and has a good shot of surpassing Wayne Gretzky's 40 points from 1993.
Crosby, despite having some of the top defensive players in the game shadowing his every step, has generated a ton of scoring chances. Too much has been made of his limited points going into game four.
A few inches here or there on his shots and those of his linemates and the same people who were criticizing him would be talking about how he was unstoppable. Since game one, he has also been dominant in the faceoff circle, enabling the Penguins to control the play.
This was a huge factor in the Penguins' scoring the winning goal in Game Three with multiple faceoff wins allowing the Penguins to wear out the Red Wings in their own zone.
6. Speaking of Malkin, if the question was posed at the beginning of the season asking which Russian hockey player would capture the scoring title in both the regular season and the playoffs, becoming the first player to do it since Mario Lemieux, I'm guessing most people outside of western Pennsylvania wouldn't have guessed Geno.
Remind me again why this guy wasn't the favored candidate at the end of the regular season to capture the MVP award?
7. I keep reading how the Penguins were more explosive in 2008, but I don't see it. This team is superior to the 2008 version in most ways. Crosby and Malkin are both better players.
Billy Guerin is playing close to the same level as Benedict Hossa in 2008. And several other key Penguins' players, especially Mad Max Talbot and Rob Scuderi, have improved their games. The only player who was underperforming this year compared to last year was Marc-Andre Fleury, and perhaps Jordan Staal.
Fleury was spectacular throughout the playoffs in 2008. He has not looked as sharp in 2009...until the last two games. Again, that is not necessarily a good sign for the Red Wings.
8. Nobody needed a goal going into this game as badly as Jordan Staal. He has done a great job in the playoffs in playing defensive hockey, but he has not performed to his usual standard. He has been awful at times on face offs and has not generated many good scoring opportunities.
But, his goal that sparked the Penguins rally was a thing of beauty, beating an excellent defender in Brian Rafalski en route to the biggest goal of the year for the Penguins. If all three of the Penguins' top centers are hitting on all cylinders in the remaining two to three games, the Red Wings, despite their tremendous depth, will really have their hands full.
9. I wonder if Mike Babcock's decision to focus so exclusively on shutting down Crosby was based on the disparity in play between him and Malkin in last year's series? While the move looked wise after the first two games, I'm beginning to have my doubts about it.
Zetterberg cannot handle the kind of minutes he was logging in Pittsburgh. And
Malkin is finding too much space. I'm wondering if Babcock will switch things up in game five.
Zetterberg's struggles in game four has to have caught his attention. He is being asked to do too much, to be the defensive superhero while contributing on all of the special teams.
10. Speaking of questioning Mike Babcock, I also am not at all sure scratching Justin Abdelkader was a great idea. I realize that he needed to make room to get the veterans returning from injury back on the ice.
But, Abdelkader was a one-man Penguin wrecking crew. Count me as one Penguins' fan that wasn't altogether unhappy that he wasn't on the bench. I watched game two with a Wings' fan on a somewhat extended lunch hour (in Korea) and all I kept hearing about was how great Abdelkader was going to be for the Wings.
And that was before he singlehandedly skated by two Penguins' defenders and scored while the rest of the Red Wings were trying to shift lines.
10. This Penguins team has shown a tremendous amount of determination and resilience and that resilience is really what separates this squad from the 2008 squad. They've had their backs to the wall repeatedly in these playoffs. First, they were down two games to the Capitals and playing in overtime for their lives.
They fell into a two
game hole again in this series and were facing a do or die period. And they did it again in a near must-win game four, falling behind 2-1 in the second period. This team has nine lives.
But, the ability to bounce back so consistently shows real resilience. In fact, they've fallen behind repeatedly in games in every series. This is not a team that panics. They know they are good and the players are confident in one another.
Contrast that to 2008 when the Penguins didn't seem to know what hit them after the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals. This team has really matured and that is a tribute both to Dan Bylsma and the players.
With the series reduced to a best of three series, I think the Penguins have the edge. I'm wondering how many Penguins' fans truly believed the Penguins would win games three and four. Count me as not one of them.
While game four was a must-win game for the Penguins, we may also look back and realize it was a must-win game for the Red Wings. The Penguins look fresh and confident. They know they can win. The Red Wings have woken up the reality that they can lose and doubt is surely creeping in.
The Red Wings look tired and face the daunting task of having to hold down the fort against the pesky "kids" who won't go away. Every game in this series has been fantastic and I expect that trend to continue for the next three as well. And we finally get to watch a hockey game that isn't a must-win game.
Regardless of who wins game five, the series will still very much be alive. The Red Wings are too proud and too darn good to go down without a fight. If the Penguins are going to win this series, it will be on Detroit's ice in game seven. That's my prediction for how this series will end.