PITTSBURGH – Finally, three games into the Stanley Cup final, the Detroit Red Wings experienced what Sidney Crosby is all about and what he means to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Perhaps just as importantly to the Penguins, Detroit also saw what Evgeni Malkin can be, even if his name didn’t make it onto the scoresheet and his image didn’t show up on the post-game highlights.
Malkin, the NHL’s second-leading regular-season scorer but a tired, confused and ineffective player during the first two games of the final, looked more comfortable back at home during Pittsburgh’s desperately needed 3-2 victory in Game 3 on Wednesday night.
With Crosby scoring twice during an inspirational performance, the Penguins cut Detroit’s lead to 2-1 going into Game 4 on Saturday and avoided the possibility the Red Wings could clinch the Cup on Pittsburgh’s ice that night.
Malkin didn’t score a goal for the sixth time in seven games, but once again was one of the best skaters on the ice, creating scoring chances while constantly being in the middle of the Penguins’ offence.
It was a welcome change for Malkin, who, for the second spring in a row, looked to be wearing down during the long grind of a season that began during training camp 8 1/2 months ago.
“I liked Malkin’s game. I thought it was his best game in the final,” coach Michel Therrien said Thursday. “Even if he didn’t score, I thought he generates a lot, he was skating well. We could see that he was going, he’s going in the right direction. So that’s a good sign for him.”
For his team, too. The Penguins learned while being outscored 7-0 in the first two games how much Crosby and Malkin mean to them.
Malkin looked especially off his game in Detroit, and he acknowledged between Games 1 and 2 that the playoffs were wearing on him mentally and physically. After having five goals and two assists in a four-game span against the Rangers and Flyers, Malkin has only one goal and one assist and is a minus-4 in his last seven games.
Malkin similarly hit the wall late last season, when the NHL rookie of the year had only four goals in his final 29 games and none in his final nine, including five games in a first-round playoff loss to Ottawa.
On Wednesday, Malkin threw out more bodychecks than he did in Detroit and visibly picked up the game of linemate Petr Sykora. He hasn’t scored in seven games and has one goal in 12 games.
“I felt much better (in Game 3),” Malkin said, speaking through interpreter George Birman. “Now that I’ve got that finals taste, every game is better and better.”
The Penguins are much younger than the Red Wings, so they believe a longer series favours them. Until Wednesday, Malkin seemed to be disproving that theory during the first two games, looking at times as if he were skating in sand.
“The first two games weren’t the best games our team has played, and especially me,” Malkin said. “I didn’t play a good first two games, but I got good advice from my coaches. They helped me by telling me what I should do and I kind of went over it myself, what to do, so I was able to have a good game.”
What the more active Malkin didn’t want to do in Game 3 was take a penalty for hooking Niklas Kronwall with 4:18 remaining and Pittsburgh trying to preserve its 3-2 lead. The Penguins killed off the power play, and got the victory they had to have to get back into the series.
Now, rather than having to win four of five to win the Cup, they can do so by winning three of four.
It wasn’t close to the imperfect games they played in Detroit, where the Penguins will return for Game 5 on Monday night. A Game 5 they weren’t certain of playing until they ran their home-ice winning streak to 17 games.
“Our team, first of all, is getting better every game,” Therrien said. “Our team is getting more comfortable every game. Our team’s got more confidence every game. And that’s a good sign. I think it’s normal a little bit, too, because we’re such a young team. And everything is brand new for them to be in the finals.”