Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock nailed it during his post-Game 6 comments in the bowels of Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh. It wasn't a rout. It wasn't a toe-to-toe slugfest for 60 minutes. It was the Pittsburgh Penguins carrying the play for just over half the game, and then digging in for their playoff lives -- with their clutch goalie -- as the Wings roared back to life.
"I thought they were better than us," Babcock said, "though, at the start of the game, probably, for the first almost 32 minutes. They won more races and more battles, had more play, were on top of us more, and they kept us to the outside. I thought we started to build some momentum at the end of the second period, and then obviously we had a good third period."
What was obvious in the third was that Detroit was doing everything it didn't do in the previous two periods. The breakouts were more confident and dangerous. The defensive responsibility didn't leave Chris Osgood to be a pint-sized Hercules between the pipes. The containment in the offensive zone created chances of varying quality.
After Kris Draper's goal in the third, it felt like a matter of time before the Wings tied this game. So why was it a 2-1 Penguins victory, and a Game 7 for the Stanley Cup back at the Joe on Friday night?
Marc-Andre Fleury and his defenders for one reason. The special teams effort for another.
That Fleury rebounded from a five-goal performance in Detroit shouldn't surprise anyone. He's given up 35 goals in 12 games on the road in the postseason and 27 goals in 11 games at home. But that shouldn't devalue his effort, which was the backbone of this win.
His stop on Henrik Zetterberg in the first period was tremendous if forgotten by the end of this heart-pounding game. His stop on Daniel Cleary's breakaway was a textbook bit of positioning. And while Rob Scuderi's two stops in the Penguins' crease during the waning seconds will be replayed around the globe, the fact is that Fleury's arm was right behind Scuderi's skate on the last shot of the sequence. He was there, as he was all night.
Said coach Dan Bylsma:
"He's a guy who has come up big in a lot of big games. And there was a handful of times he came up big in this game. In the first, there wasn't a lot of shots, but there were two by Zetterberg that were big. The breakaway in the third is a pretty big save at a pretty big time for our team. And that's what Marc-Andre has been able to do for us throughout this playoffs. He's shown that repeatedly here in Pittsburgh."
Plus his mom smooched him before he hit the ice. Obviously a key.
Fleury's still an adventure playing the puck, and his rebound control is about as consistent as Will Ferrell at the box office; like on the Kris Draper goal, for example.
But the defense in front of him was so good that his deficiencies were neutralized most of the night. Scuderi's name was mentioned more tonight than in any of the other games of the Finals. Brooks Orpik had a remarkable game, with four hits and six blocked shots. Players like Mark Eaton made big plays when they needed to. All of this was never more evident than on the penalty kill.
The game was won in the four minutes of the third period in which the Penguins were shorthanded. As I said on Twitter before the final 20 minutes: "The Red Wings need a power play like a frat party needs red Solo cups."
They got two, and the Penguins survived them both. Scuderi, Hal Gill and Max Talbot led the killers, who limited the Wings to three power-play shots and few lethal chances. One of the best power plays in hockey had two cracks to tie the game after Draper's tally and the Penguins thwarted them.
Hence, Game 7.
Some random thoughts:
• This sequence was pretty much heart attack city for all involved, and kudos to the officials for not blowing it dead too early:
• Evgeni Malkin didn't have a Conn Smythe-worthy game, but that doesn't matter now that we're in a Game 7. He can still win it. So can Sidney Crosby with a stellar effort in the final game; although he may need more than 17:54 of ice time to pull that off.
• What a night for Tyler Kennedy, huh? Tips the puck along the wall to allow Jordan Staal to break out with it for the first goal, and then takes advantage of a rare miscue by Nicklas Lidstrom to sneak a shot by Osgood for the game-winner. The Penguins needed the grunts in this game, and they were the best line on the ice at times on Game 6.
• Even in defeat, Chris Osgood may have locked up the Conn Smythe tonight if the Wings win the Cup.
• The Marian Hossa story reaches a fitting conclusion on Friday night. It would be nice if he could be an active participant for once.
• Finally, Mike Milbury's between-periods stint as "Mike Babcock" made Howard Beale look subtle. And he and Darren Pang look like a badly staged ventriloquist act.