DETROIT (AP) Call this one the Fickle Finals.
Two games into the Stanley Cup championship series, all signs pointed to a Red Wings redux. They may be older and more worn-down than the youthful and energized Pittsburgh Penguins, but experience, guile and winning history seemed more than enough to carry Detroit to a repeat.
That’s how it played out last year. The Red Wings won the first two games in Detroit, split the next two in Pittsburgh, then wrapped up their 11th championship in six games.
Why would this time be different?
A 5 1/2-minute stretch in the second period of Game 4 Thursday turned around the series, and the opinions of many watching it. Instead of carrying a 3-1 lead back to Hockeytown, the defending champions are locked in a 2-2 fight.
Game 5 is Saturday night in Detroit, and a return to Pittsburgh for Game 6 is a sure thing.
“If you listen to what people on the outside say, Pittsburgh was done after two games. I don’t think anybody in our locker room thought that,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said Friday. “Now if you listen to what people on the outside say, the Red Wings are done after two games. I don’t think that’s what we think.
“What we think is that we’ve got a best of three, with two in our building, and we’re going to come here and play well.”
After the NHL crammed the first five games into an eight-day stretch, including back-to-back contests to start the series, there will be two days off before Games 6 and two more before 7, should it go the distance.
That could be what the Red Wings need to get their legs back. The return of leading scorer Pavel Datsyuk, who has missed seven games due to a foot injury, would provide a major boost.
Babcock said Friday that Datsyuk will play. The Russian forward nearly got back in the lineup Thursday, after skating in the pregame warmup, but was ruled out again.
While the Penguins felt better about the first two games than they did a year ago when they failed to score, much of the talk was about missed opportunities and bad breaks.
The chances were there, but the goals weren’t as the Red Wings took a pair of 3-1 wins.
Now, after two 4-2 triumphs in front of a white-clad crowd yearning for Pittsburgh’s first hockey championship since 1992, the Penguins suddenly look like the favorites.
“As a team, we’re always focused on what we need to do,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “Hopefully we bring that levelheaded approach, whether it’s a loss or whether it’s a win. We’re no closer to the end than they are.
“We have two more wins to get and we have a tall task going into a tough building against a very good team who is playing well.”
For the third time since 1978, the home team has won the first four games in the finals. Six years ago, the New Jersey Devils won the Cup by capturing all four victories at home. They lost all three games in Anaheim to the Ducks, coached by Babcock.
“We know we have to go in there and play a solid game,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said Friday, before the team hopped a flight to Motown. “We want to come back here obviously up.”
So back it goes to old Joe Louis Arena and its bouncy end boards. They were more friendly to the hometown Red Wings and goalie Chris Osgood than to Pittsburgh counterpart Marc-Andre Fleury in Games 1 and 2.
“I think we were tired after the last game,” Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. “You should be tired after a hard game like that. But we’re feeling good today.
“You see two teams that are matched up great together. Both teams play a lot alike.”
Fleury has reclaimed the spotlight from Osgood, who had been 10-2 in his career in the finals before his latest trip to Pittsburgh doubled his loss total.
The Red Wings might be able to rattle him again in Game 5, but it probably won’t be enough to grab the momentum again if they can’t slow down Evgeni Malkin. The NHL’s regular-season scoring champion is tops in the playoffs with 35 points, and his 14 goals are second only to Crosby (15).
Malkin energized Mellon Arena in Game 4 by staking the Penguins to a 1-0 lead in the first period, then nearly brought that old building down by setting up Crosby’s go-ahead goal – and first of the series – in the decisive second period.
That marked the fourth time Crosby and Malkin scored in the same game during these playoffs. Malkin has the most points in the playoffs since Wayne Gretzky had 40 in 1993.
The Penguins shook off Detroit’s 2-1 lead in the middle frame and scored three goals in a span of 5:37 – a spurt that started with Jordan Staal’s short-handed tally at 8:35.
Making that momentum stick will likely be necessary for the Penguins to come all the way back from their 2-0 hole. They have the experience, having pulled it off that comeback against Washington in a seven-game series in the second round.
Keeping an even keel through the ups and downs isn’t easy.
“We’re so focused on playing the right way and doing the right thing,” Crosby said. “We take a lot of pride in that, so we don’t let our focus sway too much. That’s probably the biggest challenge of the playoffs, mentally.
“We’ve been in this situation before and we know that it gets more difficult as the series wears on. We’ve done a good job here at home, but we’ve got to move on.”