PITTSBURGH (AP) Right about now, what must bother the Pittsburgh Penguins more than their inability to switch off the power of Pavel or the disappearance of their stars during a meltdown in Motown is that Marian Hossa could be right.
The Red Wings truly might be the NHL’s best team, and Hossa’s better chance of winning the Stanley Cup was in Detroit, not in Pittsburgh.
The Red Wings not only lead the Stanley Cup finals 3-2 heading in a potential Cup-clinching Game 6 on Tuesday night, they’ve got a not-healthy but a productive Pavel Datsyuk back in their lineup. They’ve also exposed Pittsburgh’s supposed edges in speed and star-class players as fraudulent, the evidence being a 5-0 rout in Detroit on Saturday night in which they looked to be anything but weary or finished.
During a finals in which momentum means nothing and playing at home means everything, the Penguins have the home-ice advantage in the next game, and not much else. And Hossa certainly isn’t having any second thoughts.
Hossa doesn’t have a goal, hasn’t made a signature play and has been less effective for Detroit than he was for Pittsburgh in the finals a year ago. Still, with one more victory, the man who has spent 11 months rationalizing why he left a championship-caliber team in Pittsburgh and the big money it offered to sign a one-year deal with Detroit won’t have to explain any longer.
This rarely happens, especially during times of a troubled economy: A player giving a team the pink slip, and not the other way around. Regardless, that’s what Hossa did to the Penguins, who topped Detroit’s money offer but obviously couldn’t match their prestige or the powerful lure of playing for a defending champion.
“I think he’s really pleased with his decision,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said Sunday, a day off the ice for both teams during the first two-day break of the finals.
Much like Datsyuk must be pleased with his decision to ignore the excruciating pain in his apparently broken right foot to set up two goals and help take away Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in Game 5.
The two leading scorers in the playoffs spent more time getting into scrums and sitting in the penalty box than they did creating any scoring for the Penguins, who missed an opportunity to put themselves one victory away from winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1992.
It wasn’t even close.
The Penguins rallied from the brink numerous times during the past four months, starting with the 18-3-4 surge that began in mid-February and carried a previously slumping team into the playoffs. They were down 2-0 to Washington in the second round and came back to win, and they trailed Detroit 2-0 before tying the finals.
This comeback would be the toughest yet, because they first must win a Game 6 in which the Stanley Cup will be in their building, and they can’t win it.
Even if they survive, they would also have to win a Game 7 in Detroit, where they have been outscored 20-5 while losing five of six in the last two finals. So far, the home team has won every game in these finals.
“We’ve come back, we’ve bounced back,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “We’ve battled in the face of adversity. We’ve come back and won a Game 7 at Washington. This is a group of guys I believe in and am confident in. It’s a tough situation.”
Tough, because the Penguins somehow must quickly restore goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s confidence after he gave up five goals before the end of the second period and was yanked for backup Mathieu Garon.
Tough, because Malkin and Crosby – of all players – were no-shows offensively in one of the biggest games of their careers.
Tough, because the Red Wings are so close to winning a fifth Stanley Cup since 1997, and anything that gives them an early lift in Game 6 potentially might supply the surge that overcomes Pittsburgh’s home-ice superiority.
“When you close out a team, it’s not easy,” Detroit forward Dan Cleary said. “You’re taking away somebody’s dreams they live for, and it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s all will and determination and how badly you want it.”
Datsyuk showed his teammates how much he wants it, returning from a seven-game layoff despite not being fully healthy to play a major role offensively and defensively in Game 5. He reunited with Henrik Zetterberg to help shut down the Malkin and Crosby lines.
“He’s an elite player – that’s what he does,” Bylsma said of Datsyuk, a finalist for the NHL MVP and best defensive forward awards. “He’s certainly a big factor. We’re going to have to almost take a more defensive stance when he’s out there.”
Malkin and Crosby must take a more offensive stance, unless the Penguins want to see the Red Wings skating around Mellon Arena with Stanley Cup in tow, just as they did after Game 6 last year. Even worse for them, Hossa would likely be among the first to get his hands on it.
“Coming back home for Game 6, we just have to focus on one game,” Penguins forward Bill Guerin said. “We can’t think about a Game 7. We can’t think about what happened in Game 5. It has to be just Game 6, getting back to the way that we’re supposed to.”
Because, as the Penguins well know, there won’t be any more games if they don’t.