All that young talent on the Pittsburgh Penguins made its strongest appearance yet last night to put a Stanley Cup within reach.
Over two consecutive NHL championship series, the older and wiser Detroit Red Wings have kept the burgeoning stars on the Penguins in check. That ended last night when Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal tore the game out of the Red Wings' hands with a brilliant display aided by goaltender Marc-André Fleury, who made 37 saves.
The Penguins' 4-2 win tied the best-of-seven final 2-2. The Red Wings are clearly on the defensive with the series headed back to Detroit.
For the first time, going back to last year's final, which was won by Detroit in six games, the Penguins look as though they are in position to become champions, led by their four prodigies, the oldest of whom is Fleury at 24.
The game turned on a short-handed goal by Staal at 8:35 of the second period. Once again, the Red Wings were the victims of a special-teams malaise, only this time it was their power play that let them down.
After the Wings took a 2-1 lead with a goal by Brad Stuart 46 seconds into the second period, it looked as though they were in control not only of the game but the series. When the Penguins took back-to-back penalties several minutes later, the sellout crowd of 17,132 almost audibly let the air fizzle out of their team's balloon.
"I'm never a guy who denies things that go through his head," Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said. "When they got that goal, I looked up at the clock and saw there were 19 minutes left. I'm sure I was not the only guy who said, 'Oh, goodness.'"
But then Malkin, who took the first of the two penalties, almost scored on a partial breakaway while killing the second one. A few seconds later Staal shook off Red Wings defenceman Brian Rafalski on a rush and scored his first goal of the series and the building was electric again.
Staal's goal turned the game around, and perhaps the series.
"That was huge," said Crosby, who scored his first goal of the series two minutes later, the one that stood up as the winner. "[The Red Wings]had a little bit of momentum at that point. That was a huge momentum shift for us."
Staal, 20, said the goal was "one of the biggest of my career so far. To change a game like that was pretty exciting. I was just trying to get my body in there the best I could."
Crosby's goal came off a brilliant two-on-one rush with Malkin, who was the dominant player in the game. Malkin carried the puck and it looked as though the odd-man rush was broken up by Wings defenceman Jonathan Ericsson. He dived to block Malkin's pass to Crosby, but Malkin simply retrieved the puck and refed Crosby, who buried a shot in the open side of the net.
"Any time you're getting chances and they're not going in, you stick with things," said Crosby, who was getting a little tired of being asked why he hadn't scored against shadow Henrik Zetterberg and the Wings.
Giving up a short-handed goal was a cruel sting for the Red Wings, who had previously been struggling with their penalty killing. They lost Game 3 because of it.
"We talk about penalty killing but I thought our power play sucked the life right out of us," Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock said. "[The Penguins] had way more energy than us from that point on."
Until last night, Zetterberg was a thorn in the side of Crosby. But after Crosby's goal gave the Penguins the lead for good, Zetterberg looked tired for the first time in the series. He made at least two egregious giveaways over the rest of the period, with the first one resulting in a goal by Tyler Kennedy.
Crosby and Malkin each finished with a goal and an assist and the Red Wings now need centre Pavel Datsyuk more than ever to return from a foot injury to ease Zetterberg's burden.
The Datsyuk drama took an unexpected turn before the game. Even though Datsyuk had hinted strongly he would play, he was scratched after taking the pregame warmup. This time, though, his absence appeared to wear on the Red Wings.
But Babcock said the decision was actually made by 3 p.m. yesterday afternoon when the team's athletic therapist sent the coach a text message. He said it looked as if Datsyuk couldn't go and Babcock said that was it, although he hinted later Datsyuk could play in Game 5 tomorrow.