Starkey: Staal's goal ignited Pens' frenzy

| Friday, June 5, 2009

The Penguins used an exotic route to their 4-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night.

They took the Jordan River.

But only after they almost drowned.

This game -- and perhaps this series -- turned on Jordan Staal's short-handed goal at 8:35 of the second period.

The Penguins had squandered a 1-0 lead and trailed, 2-1, after giving up a late first-period goal and an early second-period goal. They appeared to be in serious trouble, especially after defenseman Brooks Orpik went to the box at 7:43 for their second successive penalty.

It's no exaggeration to say that if the Red Wings had cashed in on one of those two power plays, the series might have been over.

"I'm sure there were more people than myself thinking, 'Oh goodness,' " said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.

He got that right. A previously raucous crowd had become so quiet you could hear a puck drop.

But that turned out to be the calm before the Staal.

Penguins winger Max Talbot forced a turnover and had the courage to try to make a play instead of firing the puck down the ice.

He sent the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Staal sprinting up the middle like Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. Only 5-10 defenseman Brian Rafalski -- the equivalent of a cornerback -- stood in his way, and as one former Penguins player said later, "It was like fly season."

Staal simply swatted Rafalski away, made a quick backhand-to-forehand move and pushed the puck past goalie Chris Osgood for his first goal in Stanley Cup Final competition.

The Penguins desperately needed Staal to make his presence felt.

"It felt pretty good," he said. "I just buried my head and went for it."

As soon as the puck crossed the line, the place just snapped.

The feeding frenzy was on.

The Penguins started flying all over the ice, dominating the Red Wings in a way teams almost never do.

"Our power play sucked the life out of us," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said.

"That definitely changed the game," Talbot said.

Shortly after Staal's goal, Bylsma sent out Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin together, because he knew Red Wings stopper Henrik Zetterberg wouldn't be on the ice. The two combined on a gorgeous 2-on-1 -- Crosby flipping Malkin's pass into the net for his first goal of the series.

Next came the prettiest goal of the final -- a tic-tac-toe play that started with Tyler Kennedy knocking the puck away from Zetterberg in the Red Wings' zone and to teammate Chris Kunitz.

It ended with Kennedy taking Crosby's cross-ice pass and one-timing it past Osgood for a 4-2 lead.

Total damage: three goals in 5:37.

It's probably good that Malkin didn't beat Osgood on his breakaway just as the second period ended -- instead of Osgood robbing him with his glove -- because the old steel barn might have exploded on the spot.

Anyway, welcome to the Stanley Cup Final. It's now a best-of-3, beginning Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena.

Which brings up a question. If the Penguins win that game, they will be one victory away from the Cup; closer than Detroit. Does that mean Marian Hossa will jump sides and play on Crosby's line in Game 6?

Even if all the Penguins really did in Game 4 was hold serve, it felt to Orpik like something bigger might have transpired.

"This game was just as important to them as it was to us," he said. "It was kind of like a Game 7 for both teams. If anything, I think maybe we swung the momentum to our side.

"If it was up to us, we'd like to get right back at it (today)."

Had the Penguins lost, we would be talking about how just six teams have reached Game 7 after falling behind 3-1 in the Final. And that of those, only the 1942 Maple Leafs won it all.

Instead, we are talking about what might turn out to be one of the most riveting Finals in recent memory.

It's a best-of-3 now.

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