PITTSBURGH – Five years ago Mike Babcock returned home with his Anaheim Ducks after being hammered in the opening two games of the Stanley Cup final.
The series would be a short one, it was said. The New Jersey Devils were in a different league. Sound familiar?
“Two games in that series, it was all about we were unworthy of being in the final,” said Babcock. “And I remember Jean-Sebastien Giguere stood up at one of these things and sat here and said: ‘We earned our way here, and we have a heck of a team. And they’ve earned their way here. They’ve got a heck of a team. We’ve got two good teams going out.”‘
The Pittsburgh Penguins felt a lot like those Ducks after two games in this year’s Stanley Cup final. Disrespected.
“Most of you guys had written us off,” said Penguins defenceman Ryan Whitney.
The question now is whether these Penguins will resemble the Ducks of 2003 and at least push the favourites to seven games. Or will they follow the script of last year’s Cup final when the Ottawa Senators thought they were back into it after taking Game 3 but then dropped a pair of one-sided games as the Ducks closed out their championship run in five games.
“We didn’t come into this series thinking we were going to win four straight,” said Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood. “We were hoping to. But to say we expected it to be a hard series would be right on.”
The Penguins were ecstatic, yes, to win Game 3 on Wednesday night to cut Detroit’s advantage to 2-1 in the series. But they’re far from satisfied.
“I think I heard someone today say that we played a near perfect game last night,” Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik said Thursday. “I can count numerous times where we gave up a lot of odd-man rushes last night. We were definitely better than we were in the first couple of games.
“But it was nowhere near a perfect game.”
No, but it was a thrilling game. Some of the most veteran hockey scribes agreed Thursday that they hadn’t seen a Cup final game that entertaining in a long time. It was just the kind of hockey this final had been hyped up to produce.
“Absolutely,” said Wings centre Kris Draper. “I thought last night’s game was unbelievable. There was a lot of hits and skating, some great plays. Big saves. It had everything that we expected this series was going to have. And those are the games you love being a part of.
“Obviously we would have loved to have been on the other side last night, but that didn’t happen. We did get the loss. But as a hockey player, and playing in the Stanley Cup final, that’s what we expect. And I thought it was a tremendous game played by both teams.”
Game 4 doesn’t go until Saturday night at Mellon Arena, where the Penguins are now 9-0 in these playoffs. They’ve won 17 in a row at home overall.
“They seem to be playing real well at home,” said Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom. “I think they feed off the fans here. I think last night they came out with lots of energy, and I think the fans really helped them with that. I think they feel confident playing here at home.
“So as a road team coming in here you have to play real well in your own end, and you have to make them play defence, too. I thought at times we were able to do that in that third period, but we have to stick with it even longer.”
The Wings aren’t about to change their game plan. Their third-period rally came up just short Wednesday night and they remain in the drivers’ seat at 2-1. They didn’t panic after losing two straight to Dallas in the Western Conference final.
“We lost two games and everyone was talking about, ‘you’re going to change this, change that,”‘ said Babcock. “We said: No, we’re not changing that. This is what we do.”
On the Pittsburgh end, confidence was restored. While the Penguins denied it and said all the right things before Game 3, they looked a little rattled after the being outscored 7-0 in the games at Detroit. Scoring first Wednesday was huge. Holding on for the win was even bigger.
“That team, when they get confidence, they could accomplish a lot of big things,” said Penguins head coach Michel Therrien. “And this is what we’ve proved so far. And they proved that to themselves, too. That’s important that they’re capable to prove to themselves that when they’re playing the way we ask them to play, they’re going to get rewarded.
“And I think yesterday we deserved to win, and they’re going to feel good about themselves. And they’re going to enjoy their day off today, because it was an emotional three days, for sure. And come back tomorrow to work and be ready for Saturday.”