DETROIT – The Detroit Red Wings left the Pittsburgh Penguins in their dust in the opening game of the NHL’s championship series.
After goaltenders Chris Osgood of the Red Wings and Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins stole the show in the opening period, Detroit’s relentless forechecking forced turnovers and Mikael Samuelsson scored in the second and again in the third to give the Red Wings a lead they weren’t about to relinquish as they cruised to a 4-0 victory Saturday night.
Dan Cleary scored a short-handed goal and Henrik Zetterberg got one on a power play in the last three minutes to make it a rout.
“We pride ourselves in being a good forechecking team putting pressure on the defence to turn pucks over,” said Cleary. “Our blueprint is to be aggressive and be smart – force them to make a play maybe they don’t want to make.”
There were plenty of those as red-clad checkers swarmed deep into the Pittsburgh end time after time.
“Fleury kept them in it early, as Ozzie did for us,” said Cleary. “We just happened to get the first goal and then the second goal – huge goals by Samuelsson.”
Detroit outshot Pittsburgh 24-8 over the last 40 minutes after the Penguins had a 12-11 edge in the first period.
“I don’t know if it was the nerves but, definitely, that was the worst performance of the playoffs,” Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien said of his team’s fade. “We didn’t compete like we were supposed to compete. It’s a good lesson.”
Game 2 is Monday.
Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin managed three shots and one shot, respectively, on Osgood in the game. Malkin didn’t get one on the Detroit net during the last 40 minutes. Detroit coach Mike Babcock opted to go strength against strength and used Zetterberg opposite Crosby and Kris Draper against Malkin. The strategy worked wonderfully for the Red Wings, even though Babcock wasn’t pleased with what he termed his team’s slow start.
“You always want to get off to a good start at home,” said Babcock. “Maybe we put a little too much pressure on ourself at first, but once we skated well and executed we were a better hockey club and played well.”
Osgood and Fleury exchanged enormous save after enormous save through the scoreless first period.
Detroit captain Nick Lidstrom put a puck behind Fleury in the 16th minute, but referee Dan O’Halloran ruled it was no goal and penalized Tomas Holmstrom for goaltender interference. Holmstrom had delivered a weak slash to Fleury’s legs as the goalie glided out to the top of his crease. It was minor contact but, by strict application of the rules, an infraction.
An incensed Babcock yelled at the referees from the Wings bench.
Holmstrom’s insistence on screening and pestering goalies, which cost Detroit a goal in the previous series, has made him a marked man in the eyes of referees. It was the fourth consecutive Detroit penalty, but Osgood wasn’t letting anything in.
Both teams continued to get scoring chances, and Osgood and Fleury kept zeros on the scoreboard – until Samuelsson took charge.
The Swede gathered in a turnover in the neutral zone and dashed into the Pittsburgh end. He went wide around Rob Scuderi, continued on behind the net and buried the puck on a wraparound at 13:01. It happened so fast that Fleury didn’t have time to get his left leg down and across the crease in time.
It was all Detroit the rest of the way. The Red Wings Crosby and Co. 16-4 in the second period. The fact all three penalties assessed were against Pittsburgh was partially responsible – that and Detroit forechecking that forced the Penguins into errors and thwarted breakout attempts.
Samuelsson scored again 2:16 into the third period. Fleury slid the puck to Scuderi, who couldn’t handle it just off to the right side of Fleury’s crease. Malkin got the bouncing puck on his stick briefly, but Draper threw a check into him that separated him from it. Samuelsson was on Fleury’s doorstep to slide it past the helpless goalie.
After scoring two goals in his first 16 playoff games this spring, the six-foot-two Swede had two in one night.
“It was a great feeling,” he said. “I love to score goals.”
Captain Nick Lidstrom said Samuelsson isn’t normally an offensive kingpin because he prefers to pass rather than shoot.
“We’re always telling him to shoot the puck more,” said Lidstrom.
Samuelsson did just that on this night, and then Cleary and Zetterberg snuffed out any hope of a late Pittsburgh rally.
For Detroit fans, this was top-quality entertainment. For Pittsburgh fans, it was a night of frustration as they watched their team fall behind in a series for the first time this spring.
Teams winning Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final have gone on to win the championship in 53 of 68 seasons, or 78 per cent of the time, since the best-of-seven format was introduced in 1939.
Osgood’s goals-against average in the playoffs was lowered to 1.48. He now has a .935 save percentage and two shutouts.
“I thought we were tough on their D in the last two periods,” he said. “Made them skate back for a lot of pucks”.
“Defence is tough to play when guys are hitting you nonstop for 40 straight minutes and that’s what we accomplished. That’s why we ended up getting the goals that we did.”
He downplayed his own importance, but Zetterberg did not.
“He was huge,” said Zetterberg. “He’s being playing good all playoffs and he kept us in this game.”
“We have to play a little better defence for him.”
Hardly seems possible. Detroit was the No. 1 team in the NHL defensively all season, and it has continued doing the same right through the playoffs.
“That’s playoff hockey,” said Crosby. “I don’t expect it to be easy and skate around there freely. That’s hockey. I expect that and that’s part of the game.”
Notes: Detroit was 1-for-6 and Pittsburgh 0-for-5 on power plays . . . The final shots tally was 36-19 in Detroit’s favour . . . Detroit had a 31-25 hits edge . . . The Red Wings now are 12-0 when leading after two periods . . . Draper turned 37 Saturday . . . Pittsburgh C Jordan Staal, 19, is the first teenager to skate in the final since Philadelphia LW Dainius Zubrus in 1997 against Detroit . . . O’Halloran, 44, of Essex, Ont., is working his second championship series. Paul Devorski, 49, of Guelph, Ont., is in his sixth . . . Post-season goals by defencemen: 1. Paul Coffey 59, 2. Denis Potvin 56, 3. Ray Bourque and Lidstrom, 41 each.