PITTSBURGH – This is where the Pittsburgh Penguins hope to veer from the script.
Even though the Stanley Cup final has followed the exact same pattern as a year ago, the Penguins believe that this series could be on the way to a different ending. Trailing the Red Wings 2-1 once again, they have a sense of confidence that wasn’t there the last time around.
It was evident in the atmosphere at Mellon Arena on the eve of Thursday’s Game 4 (CBC, 8 p.m. ET).
“I think we’re a lot happier with the way we’ve played,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “You know, last year (the) first two games I look back on those and we weren’t happy at all. We knew we had a lot of work to do. We hadn’t found our game yet.
“But I feel like at this point we know what it takes. We know what makes us successful.”
The biggest difference from the Penguins perspective is probably the play of Evgeni Malkin. He leads the playoffs in scoring with 33 points and has been in on five of his team’s six goals so far in this series.
The Russian also provided a pretty good glimpse into the loose atmosphere around his team on Wednesday, when he cracked a joke at the expense of linemate Max Talbot.
They were both at the podium for interviews when Malkin was asked to describe Talbot’s game. Malkin applauded Talbot’s endless hustle, but had less-than-kind words for his scoring prowess.
“Bad hands,” Malkin joked, adding that Talbot had plenty of scoring chances but couldn’t convert.”Just empty net. It’s OK, (he’ll learn) over the summer.”
The room erupted in laughter as Malkin flashed a sly smile.
It was a telling moment for a guy who is not only becoming more comfortable speaking English, but also exuding more confidence on the game’s biggest stage. He looks like a totally different player than the one who failed to register a point in the first four games of last year’s Stanley Cup final.
Everything has been a bit easier the second time around.
“I think people lose sight of how young some of these guys are on the team,” said Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik. “Like him (Malkin), Jordan (Staal), Sid. They’re still so young. So much pressure is put on these guys.
“It was (Malkin’s) first time playing that long. I don’t think his body was really physically ready for it. I think he’s done a lot better job off the ice preparing his body for this time of the year.”
The experienced Red Wings are totally familiar with the playoff grind.
They also seemed to be in good spirits during an afternoon practice session on Wednesday, and with good reason – Detroit still leads the series and appears to be on the verge of a big addition for Game 4.
Hart Trophy finalist Pavel Datsyuk looked strong while skating on his injured foot and will be a game day decision on Thursday. He hasn’t played since early in the Western Conference final and showed some humour of his own when asked about how difficult it’s been to sit out.
“Oh I tell you, this is not fun to watch,” said Datsyuk. “I take in lots of beer.”
His first appearance in the series could totally change its dynamic.
Henrik Zetterberg has done a marvellous job of shadowing Crosby through the first three games – Sid the Kid has just one assist in the series – but the Wings haven’t had been as successful at shutting down Malkin. That’s an assignment that could easily be handled Datsyuk.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has already decided to insert Kris Draper into his Game 4 lineup and would love to be pencilling Datsyuk’s name in as well.
“He’s a Hart Trophy candidate,” said Babcock. “He’s one of the best players in the world. Obviously, we’d like to have him. But it’s one of those injuries. You have some situations at playoff time and we have to find a way to overcome.
“We’ve done a good job.”
Overall, the series has been much tighter than the one the teams contested last spring.
An argument could be made that the losing team in each of the games so far might have deserved to win. Even though the series is less than a week old, both coaches are already starting to feel the strain.
“I think the English language doesn’t do a very good job of wrapping up the emotions that you can have at this period of time,” said Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma. “Do I enjoy this? Absolutely. Is it kick my feet up, have a cool drink with a fruit in it? It’s not that kind of enjoyment. But as a competitor, as a coach, this is exactly where I want to be enjoying my time.”
Added Babcock: “It’s a roller-coaster ride. You feel great one day and the next day you don’t feel that good. And it’s all based on winning and losing.”
Deep down, the Penguins know exactly what result is all-but-necessary on Thursday.
They’ve been through this situation before and know how crushing it would be to find themselves on the brink of elimination heading back to Detroit.
“We know how big this Game 4 is now,” said Talbot. “Because we lost it last year, and it was hard to come back from a 3-1 deficit. This year we’re just a little bit more aware. We know we need to win this game.”