DETROIT – After starting the Stanley Cup final with a pair of 3-1 wins at home, it was all about the Detroit Red Wings’ mystique and how they find ways to win even when outplayed.
And after answering back with two 4-2 victories at home, it’s about how the Pittsburgh Penguins are healthier, fresher and ready to end the Red Wings reign as Stanley Cup champions.
Now a dramatic and entertaining best-of-seven series has come down to a best-of-three. Hart Trophy candidate Pavel Datsyuk is poised to return to the Detroit lineup from a foot injury and Game 5 awaits at Joe Louis Arena on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET).
“We’re no closer to the end than they are,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said Friday. “We have two more wins to get and we have a tall task going into a tough building against a very good team.
“It will all happen on Saturday.”
The Red Wings looked to be reeling after wasting a 2-1 lead in Game 4 on Thursday night in Pittsburgh, when Jordan Staal’s shorthanded goal ignited a three-goal run in under six minutes to secure the Penguins’ win and tie the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
A Detroit team stocked with veteran leaders was concerned about turning the puck over too often even when it was winning games, but it only got worse in Pittsburgh.
The Detroit power play is 1-for-10 in the series and some of its prime offensive weapons – notably Marian Hossa and Tomas Holmstrom – are still without a goal in the series.
But Pittsburgh is 4-for-9 with the man advantage and two of its top young guns, Stall and Sidney Crosby, broke the ice with their first goals in Game 4.
Momentum clearly shifted when the series moved to Pittsburgh and the Red Wings need to get it back if they hope to become the first repeat champions since the Detroit teams of 1997 and 1998.
“The one thing we have here is that we don’t panic too much,” Red Wings veteran Kirk Maltby said Friday. “We know we have to play a little harder and maybe be a little more desperate, but we still have a game plan to follow and we have to work hard and execute.
“We feel that whether it’s the first round or the final that if we play the way we’re capable of, we can beat anyone. But we can’t be turning the puck over against players like that.”
Datsyuk was expected to return for Game 4 but was a game-time scratch. Coach Mike Babcock said a definite “he’ll play” when asked about the gifted centre’s availability for Saturday’s game.
What Babcock was not sure of was how effective Datsyuk will be and how much he will be able to play on a sore foot and after missing seven games. Fully healthy, he and Henrik Zetterberg give Detroit a one-two punch not far off Pittsburgh’s Crosby-Evegni Malkin duo down the middle.
“We’d like Pavel to have the puck for 18 or 19 minutes like he usually does,” said Babcock. “When he has the puck, they don’t have it.
“Plus you’re faster coming out of your zone and faster in the neutral zone.”
Without Datsyuk, Zetterberg has been overtaxed, particularly with his duties in checking Crosby.
The Penguins sense fatigue in the Red Wings, who have a handful of players either out of the lineup or recently returned from injuries and who endured a gruelling series against Anaheim in the second round of playoffs.
Pittsburgh has been trying to follow one part of the Anaheim script – getting forecheckers in to pound the Detroit defence and cause turnovers.
Babcock said his team can counter that by playing smarter, more patient hockey.
“When you don’t manage the puck well, that’s very effective,” he said. “When you manage the puck well, it’s not very effective.
“There have been times we’ve been all over them too. I thought we had (Game 4) well under control and we had the puck a lot, but on the power play, we shot ourselves in the foot and it went from there.”
Defence ace Nik Lidstrom certainly noticed the hitting from Matt Cooke, Chris Kunitz and others.
“Especially in their building I think they were coming after us more,” said Lidstrom. “That could be from playing on home ice, but they’re trying to put pressure on us when they can and when they’re not, they’re backing off and playing the trap real well.”
A year ago, the same two teams met in the final and Detroit held a 3-1 lead, but lost Game 5 at home before finishing off the Penguins in the sixth game back in Pittsburgh.
This time, losing Game 5 would put them on the brink of elimination.
“No one said it would be easy,” added Lidstrom. “We took care of home ice and they did too.
“We’re tied and it’s been a great series so far.”