With 35 seconds left, the Cup was polished, the champagne was put on ice and the party was set. Even the vendors began preparing the pre-made "2008 Stanley Cup Championship" T-shirts to be sold in anticipation of a sure Game Five victory.
Pittsburgh grinder, Maxim Talbot, put an end to those premature plans when he tied the game with barely half-a-minute left in the game. Nearly three overtimes later, Petr Sykora would score on a power play to keep the Penguins season alive.
Pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV and invariably you’ll hear all about Marc-Andre Fleury’s heroics. The young goaltender, and former first overall draft pick, stole the show, and the game, from the Red Wings and their fans. He deserves the praise.
Experts have since spoken about the confidence that the Pens must be feeling after grasping sure defeat from the lion's mouth. They’re now questioning the mental fortitude of the Red Wings, believing that such a defeat might deflate a team that was so close to tasting the sweet rewards sixteen victories gets you in the NHL playoffs.
What they won’t talk about is how the Wings failure to put in a solid first 20 minutes sealed victory for Pittsburgh. Nor have they spoken much regarding how Detroit utterly and thoroughly dominated the Penguins in the last half of Monday night’s game, particularly the overtime sessions.
With Sergei Gonchar out with back-spasms caused by a head-first collision in the second period, and with Evgeni Malkin doing his best Casper imitation, this young core of Penguins players spent more than half the game, and nearly the entire overtime portion of it, on their heals and with their backs against the wall.
For long stretches of time, Pittsburgh’s forwards could barely muster a shot, let alone a quality scoring chance. Facing a wall of defenders along the blue line, carrying the puck into the offensive zone was an act of futility. Dumping it in seemed a minor annoyance to the Red Wings as it served only to add a handful of seconds to an inevitable offensive rush that the Pittsburgh skaters had no answer for.
Luckily for them, Fleury was equal to the task and kept the onslaught of red-and-white at bay.
Before the series began, many predicted that it would be youth that would carry the Penguins past a veteran-laced Red Wings club. However, as the game progressed it was Detroit that got while the Pens appeared to lose steam.
Can Fleury repeat his performance from barely 24-hours ago? It’s not unfathomable to think he could. But in my opinion, the Pittsburgh Penguins know how lucky they are to have walked out of Joe Louis Arena with another day to live.
They threw everything they had at Detroit in the third period and in the two-and-a-half overtimes, and it barely fazed the Red Wings. At even-strength, at times, it appeared that Detroit was scrimmaging with a high-school team from Grand Rapids.
It’s for this reason that I question the mental stability of the Penguins. Are they rejuvenated from escaping the jaws of defeat? Or have they seen a glimpse of what is to come tonight?
This time, the Red Wings won’t wait until halfway through the second period before they begin to impose their will. The onslaught will begin from the opening face-off and won’t commence until the final buzzer. How will Pittsburgh respond? to that?
Some will say that, based on how they came back to win Game Five, they’re the team that has proven to have the mental strength to push back when up against a wall. It’s a very valid point.
But I believe that Game Five took its toll on the Penguins. The last drop of gas in the can is gone. Watching Detroit pepper the Pens in OT, like a boxer drilling a half-conscience opponent in the corner, makes me believe that the Penguins are looking at a steep climb in Game Six.
The Penguins have a fine team; one that surely has the opportunity to win a Cup, or Cups, in the near future. But tonight, the men separate themselves from the boys. Tonight, the Red Wings will show that they are not dejected or drained from letting a game they were in control of slip away.
They are angry and embarrassed that they failed to finish off a downed opponent. And at home no less.
They will achieve victory tonight. And in my estimation, it won’t be pretty.