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Starkey: Prove it, Penguins

The Penguins insist it's different this year, even though the bottom-line reckoning reads the same as last year's Stanley Cup Final, three games deep:

Detroit 2, Pittsburgh 1.

Some of us happen to think they're right, by the way, that things really are different; that the Penguins really do have a genuine shot to win this thing.

But there's only one way to prove it: Win tonight.

Win tonight, and the pressure reverts back to Detroit.

Win tonight, and a suspenseful series becomes something more than a concept.

Win tonight, and all the talk about how the Penguins are better prepared for the big stage this year and know how to beat Detroit this year and feel much better about themselves this year becomes a lot more believable.

Lose tonight, and it's over.

You know that.

I know that.

The Red Wings and Penguins know it, too (though the Red Wings, polite assassins that they are, would never admit as much).

Teams of championship pedigree do not blow 3-1 leads. They finish the job.

Larry Bird spoke to the kill mentality when his Boston Celtics lost three of the first four games of the 1987 NBA Finals to Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers. Bird had a good idea of what was coming. He had a feeling, because he'd experienced the other side of the equation.

"I know what I say when I'm up 3-1," Bird said. "I say it's over."

And so it was, even if the Celtics, like last year's Penguins, stretched the series to six games.

The Red Wings reminded us in the second period of Game 3, for the first time in the series, that they can still play at a rarefied level. And that was without world-class forward Pavel Datsyuk, a good bet to return from injury tonight.

Credit the Penguins for gathering themselves and coming back strong in the third period.

One thing we know is different about this Penguins' team: Evgeni Malkin is a new man. Malkin already has more points (five) than he had in last year's Final (three), but his off-ice demeanor is just as telling.

Last year, he scurried from reporters like a mouse, uncomfortable with his English and unwilling to discuss his paltry production.

This year, he's the life of the party.

That was evident Wednesday morning at Mellon Arena, when a reporter asked Malkin to appraise the play of linemate Talbot, who'd scored twice the night before.

Malkin, sitting at podium between Talbot and defenseman Sergei Gonchar in a room overflowing with reporters, considered the question. He started to answer straight, then delivered the zinger -- in broken English with a perfectly straight face.

"Little bit bad hands," Malkin said. "He have lots of scoring chances, not score. Just empty net. It's OK. He learns over the summer."

Has anybody ever seen Gonchar laugh that hard• The whole room joined him.

Most of the Penguins players who took the podium yesterday were asked to compare this year to last year -- in other words, "You're down 2-1 again; why is this different?"

Sidney Crosby's take: "I think we're a lot happier with the way we've played. ... We know what makes us successful."

Brooks Orpik: "I think the Washington series was a good test for us, going down 0-2. ... We could bring some things from that series to this series."

Fair enough, but it was Talbot who spoke the overriding truth in answering that question. We'll let him finish it off, the way he did with that empty-net goal in Game 3:

"We know how big this Game 4 is now, because we lost it last year, and it was hard to come back," he said. "This year, we're just a little bit more aware.

"We know we need to win this game."

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