After getting shellacked by the Detroit Red Wings in Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals by a combined 7-0 score, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins could certainly have been forgiven for suffering a crisis of confidence. Instead, the youthful Pens demonstrated surprising resiliency in the face of a must-win situation for Game 3, adjusting their on-ice strategy and coming away with a stirring 3-2 victory on Wednesday.
The biggest key to the Wings' mastery in the series' first two games was their ability to control the puck — and the flow of play — for large swaths of time. The frustration on the part of the Penguins by this game of "keep-away" was palpable in the first two games, and the resulting impatience played a critical role in Detroit's early dominance. In Game 3, though, mercurial Penguins head coach Michel Therrien made some necessary adjustments.
Firstly, Therrien's team effectively reduced the time and space of the Wings, their forechecking efforts putting near-constant pressure on their vaunted blue line. Pittsburgh's first goal of the series (after a 137 minutes, 25 seconds drought) came when they pounced on an uncharacteristic Red Wings turnover (by trade deadline acquisition Brad Stuart). His ill-advised outlet pass off the skate of teammate Henrik Zetterberg gave the Pens a great opportunity to attack in transition, which concluded when Crosby buried the puck past Chris Osgood.
Therrien's adjustments were also felt in the defensive zone, where the Red Wings' dangerous tic-tac-toe passing game was largely neutralized by much improved positioning. Where the Wings were always able to easily find an open man in Games 1 and 2 — even during even-strength play — things were far more difficult at Mellon Arena on Wednesday night.
Pittsburgh's defense had been thicket-like during the first three rounds, but against the Wings — by far the most formidable opponent they've faced — what had once been a surprising strength became a glaring weakness, until Game 3. The Pens got back to their diligent shot-blocking — getting in the way of 26 chances by the Red Wings — and that, combined with their more aggressive forecheck, was the difference. If the Pens are going to battle their way back into this series (much less prevail), perseverance in both areas will be mission critical.
Any discussion of the Pens' resurgence would be incomplete without paying homage to Crosby. Playing on a newly formed line that also featured Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa, he played perhaps his finest game of these playoffs. That dynamic trio is certainly capable of turning this series in the Pens' favor; if they do, the lion's share of the credit will be due to Crosby.
There has never been any doubt about Crosby's playmaking ability, but it was something else entirely that distinguished him in Game 3. During the Pens' five-game victory over the Rangers in the second round, Crosby didn't exactly endear himself to Rangers fans — nor objective onlookers — with his propensity for drawing penalties by flopping to the ice at the slightest contact. But in Game 3, Crosby's skates never stopped moving, and it was a key reason why he was the best player on the ice.
Battling through checks, Crosby never once looked to an official hoping for a favorable call, instead keeping his attention permanently focused on the task at hand. Put simply, Crosby took a huge step forward in his development, demonstrating that he has not only the skill but also the presence to emerge as one of the game's all-time great clutch performers.
While Malkin and Hossa fumbled the puck when afforded high-quality scoring chances on Wednesday night, Crosby's confidence soared, and whenever he had the puck on his stick, it seemed destined for the back of the Wings' net. That type of cool under pressure is incredibly rare. If it's maintained and the Penguins somehow manage to prevail in this series, Crosby will have improbably managed to accomplish in three seasons what took Wayne Gretzky five — and Mario Lemieux seven.
The puck drops for Game 4 at 8 p.m. on Saturday night in Pittsburgh, and will be televised on NBC. Television ratings during have been up dramatically — Game 2 was the most-watched Stanley Cup Finals cable telecast in six years — largely because these finals pit one of the sport's most storied franchises against its most popular player. And now, with the series looking much more competitive, it's shaping up to be a wonderful opportunity for hockey to gain some serious ground in its battle for respectability on the North American professional sports scene.
It had long been rumored that the NHL would follow up the highly successful Winter Classic (played in Buffalo on New Year's Day) with the last-ever event at Yankee Stadium. But details couldn't be worked out, and the next Winter Classic will instead pit the Red Wings against the Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field.
The announcement will coincide with an appearance by former Blackhawks legends Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Tony Esposito at Wrigley this afternoon, when they will lead the crowd in a (hopefully tuneful) rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Mr. Greenstein is the editor in chief of InsideHockey.com.