Penguins evolve into worthy Final foe for Red Wings

| Thursday, June 4, 2009

Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar has played for his country on six occasions in international competition and is trying for the third time to win a Stanley Cup.

The current Final against the Red Wings is demanding a career-high battle level.

"Yeah, I would say so," Gonchar said Wednesday. "It's probably one of the most competitive series that I've played."

"Same here," Penguins forward Max Talbot said.

It's that way because of familiarity and proximity, because the Red Wings are still the Red Wings, and because the Penguins have evolved into a worthy opponent after losing the Cup to Detroit in six games a year ago.

"What should have been last year is happening this year," television analyst Pierre McGuire said. "The reason why it didn't happen last year is Pittsburgh wasn't mature enough.

"These guys aren't intimidated by the theater this year."

Detroit leads the series, 2-1, heading into Game 4 tonight at Mellon Arena.

The Penguins opened by going 0 for 2 in Detroit, as they had in the 2008 Final, but emerged convinced they could have won either game.

They countered with a 4-2 victory Tuesday night in Game 3.

This time, it was the Red Wings who came away believing they deserved better.

Both teams are comprised of star-studded lineups and rely on a similar style.

The ability of each to push the other and dictate play for extended stretches, particularly in Game 3, has revealed a captivating strategic element to a series that was initially eagerly anticipated because of superstar matchups such as Sidney Crosby against Henrik Zetterberg.

"You look at the first 40 minutes," of Game 3, McGuire said. "The shots were 26-11 in favor of Detroit. Then, when Pittsburgh needed to push back in the third period, it did.

"Detroit fell behind, 1-0, and started to go. And then when it was tied, 2-2, going into the third period, you saw what happened. Pittsburgh said, 'We better win this game.' And the Penguins did."

The Penguins' most recent push had Red Wings coach Mike Babcock acknowledging the price his team paid for penalty-killing transgressions. One was a fundamental mistake in the first period, when it allowed an Evgeni Malkin pass from the boards across the middle of the ice to Kris Letang. Another was an inability to win one-on-one battles for the puck in the third; Gonchar's eventual game-winner at 10:29 followed three missed opportunities to clear the zone.

The Penguins were 2 for 3 on the power play in Game 3 and are 3 for 6 in the series.

"Our penalty kill hasn't been great all year long," Babcock said. "We need it to be great."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma recognized the almost impenetrable nature of Detroit's neutral zone defense and the critical importance of responding accordingly.

"If you take a still photo of us getting to the red line and blue line, you're going to see four Red Wings around the puck," Bylsma said. "And if you think you're going to create an offensive opportunity out of that situation, you're probably better off going to Vegas, because that's not a real good bet."

Because it's a rematch, because they'll play tonight for the fourth time in six nights and because of the high-octane, high-profile nature of the Penguins and the Red Wings, this isn't just another Final.

"Is it strenuous• Is it gut-wrenching• Yeah, there's a lot of that going on," Bylsma said. "But that's an absolutely wonderful situation to be in."

Perhaps the most telling observation came from McGuire, who worked Games 1 and 2 for NBC from between the benches.

"Very little chirping," he said.

These teams are apparently too focused to expend time and energy insulting one another.

"I think a lot of people on the outside think you just win the Cup," Babcock said. "Doesn't quite work like that.

"It's hard to win. And that's what makes it so great. There's a battle, a will and a determination that goes on for a couple of months (throughout the playoffs). If you want it bad enough and you're blessed with enough skill, you have a chance to actually win it."

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