Starkey: Pens show mettle

| Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Penguins general manager Ray Shero spotted former assistant Chuck Fletcher in the dressing room after his team's pulsating, 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night.

Shero shook Fletcher's hand and exclaimed, "That was ice hockey!"

It was that, all right, with a healthy dose of football mixed in. The Penguins hit like the Steelers all night long and even staged a goal-line stand to preserve the win.

Come to think of it, this game had the feel of an NFL conference championship.

Win, and the Penguins would advance to hockey's Super Bowl — Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Lose, and their season would come to a crushing halt.

Such stakes can lead men to great sacrifice and propel them to wondrous feats. Without a doubt, we witnessed one of the more spirited efforts in franchise history last night at Mellon Arena.

The Penguins won without a point from either of their stars, Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but those guys took a cue from Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg and made stellar defensive plays in the third period, stripping Detroit players of the puck deep in the defensive zone.

"Win or lose, we could have been proud of this team tonight," said Penguins winger Max Talbot. "What we did was give ourselves a chance to play for the Stanley Cup in a one-game contest."

That will be Friday night in Detroit, and the Penguins are after more than just a moral victory. Sure, they avoided the indignity of seeing the Red Wings parade the Stanley Cup around Mellon Arena for the second consecutive spring, but the goal here isn't to stretch the Red Wings to their limit.

It's to beat them.

Another effort like this will give the Penguins a chance.

How about that goal-line stand?

It happened with about 20 seconds left and Detroit buzzing. Somehow, defenseman Rob Scuderi wound up in the crease on his knees, attempting to rebuff repeated whacks from Detroit's Johan Franzen.

Not a good sight.

"I'm more of a stand-up goalie," Scuderi said, "not a butterfly goalie. I just kind of blacked out."

Somehow, the puck stayed out, even though every Red Wings player on the ice crashed into the crease.

Scuderi's new nickname, by the way, is "The Piece." In a published story the other day, he meant to say he was "a piece" to the Penguins' puzzle but accidentally said "the piece."

"It's not Sid, it's not Geno, apparently it's me," Scuderi joked.

Everybody played a role last night. The Penguins finished their checks from the opening faceoff to the final horn, all over the ice.

None was more impressive than the Troy Polamalu-like shot winger Matt Cooke laid on Pavel Datsyuk deep in the Red Wings' end in the second period.

Actually, it was more like Ryan Clark, and Datsyuk was Willis McGahee. His helmet flew off as he crashed to the ice.

"I just got lucky," Cooke said. "He turned into me. But, like I said, when the opportunity is there, I'm going to follow through. I got the best of him."

Every player who dressed for the Penguins spilled his guts (and you thought octopuses on the ice were messy).

There was Petr Sykora, who hadn't played in more than a month, sacrificing his body to block a shot, then clearing the puck from his knees, injured.

There was Brooks Orpik, lying down to block Mikael Samuelsson's second-period blast.

The Penguins blocked 20 shots in all.

Every loose puck became a race for the Holy Grail. Detroit coach Mike Babcock fairly assessed how those races turned out:

"They won more," he said.

If not for Red Wings' goalie Chris Osgood, this game might have been a blowout along the lines of Detroit's 5-0 victory in Game 5. The Penguins peppered Osgood though the first two periods, holding a 24-12 shots advantage, yet only led, 1-0, on Jordan Staal's goal 51 seconds into the second.

Tyler Kennedy stretched it to 2-0 early in the third, but Kris Draper got Detroit back in it at 8:01. After that, the Penguins had to kill two late penalties.

Behind the most passionate crowd of the season, they would not be denied. Marc-Andre Fleury had a redemptive game with 25 saves, including one on Daniel Cleary's breakaway with 1:45 left.

Luck was on the Penguins' side, too, when Zetterberg hit the post late in the second period. The puck bounced back under Fleury, who covered up.

It easily could have bounced off his back and in. We've seen that movie before.

These Penguins are obviously intent on writing a new script.

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