Starkey: Hockey Gods even score

| Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The idea in this Stanley Cup final, obviously, is to get outplayed.

It has worked every game.

The Penguins felt like they were the better team for large chunks of Games 1 and 2. They outshot the Detroit Red Wings twice in a row — an almost unheard-of feat in playoff games at Joe Louis Arena — yet returned home with two bitter losses.

On Tuesday night in Game 3, the scenario reversed itself. The Red Wings dominated for much of the evening, yet the Penguins emerged on the good end of a 4-2 score at raucous Mellon Arena.

It's a series again.

Apparently, the Hockey Gods wanted it that way.

As the final seconds ticked away, Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton turned to teammate Brooks Orpik and said, "It's kind of fitting that we win this game."

Why fitting?

"Because we played well enough to win at least one of the first two, and they played better than us tonight and probably deserved to win," Eaton said. "It's funny how things can even out that way."

Indeed. Most of the breaks and lucky bounces that went against the Penguins in Games 1 and 2 turned in their favor last night. They even got away with playing with six skaters for 21 seconds of the first period.

"We were going, huh?" joked Max Talbot, who scored twice on a night that showed the Penguins don't need Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to score in order to win a big game (though Malkin had three assists). "We were cycling the puck for a little bit. It was great."

Penguins winger Matt Cooke watched in horror from the bench.

"In a situation like that, you don't want to yell," Cooke said. "So I was trying to whisper to Eaton — 'Eats, Eats, Eats.' You could see him nod his head, like 1-2-3-4-5; then he turns around and sneaks off the ice. He did a great job. We got away with it."

For much of the game, it seemed like the Red Wings were the team with six skaters on the ice.

If you watched last year's final, the plot was all too familiar: The robotic Red Wings play keep-away, spend most of their time in the Penguins' end, force a ton of turnovers, score on a goal-mouth scramble or two, and skate away with a victory.

Only this time, they didn't, mostly because Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (27 saves) rebounded to play a terrific game, and his teammates snapped out of a prolonged funk at the start of the third period.

They started the game pretty well, too, taking a 1-0 lead on Talbot's goal from the slot, set up by a beautiful Malkin pass at 4:48.

Sparked by a pre-game appearance from Mario Lemieux, who dropped a ceremonial puck at center ice, and the presence of several Steelers players, plus coach Mike Tomlin, the standing-room-only crowd nearly blew the roof off.

But when Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg scored his first goal of the series at 6:19, everything turned. The game became a Red Wings' clinic.

Orpik was in the penalty box when Johan Franzen put the Red Wings ahead with a power-play goal at 11:33 of the first. The Penguins tied it with a power-play goal of their own — Kris Letang's blast from the left circle — at 15:57, but on a night when Detroit goalie Chris Osgood finally looked vulnerable, just getting a puck on net became a Herculean task.

The Penguins registered four of the game's first five shots. By the midway point of the second period, the Red Wings held a 20-10 advantage that would swell to 26-11 after two.

The Penguins then controlled much of the third, registering 10 shots to Detroit's three.

Talbot said coach Dan Bylsma's message after the horrific second period was simple: "Just relax, guys."

Cooke drew an interference penalty on Jonathan Ericsson at 9:06 to set up the winning goal — Sergei Gonchar's blast from the center point through a Bill Guerin screen.

The Penguins can make things truly interesting with a victory Thursday in Game 4. That would separate this series from last year's, which also began with the Red Wings winning twice at home and the Penguins responding in Game 3.

"This series is where it should be," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock.

And both teams no doubt head into Game 4 with the same game plan: Get outplayed.

By all means, get outplayed.

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