Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The ability to turn a perceived weakness into a strength is something that can change the complexion of an NHL playoff series, and breed confidence where their once was uncertainty.
Through two games of the Stanley Cup Finals it appeared as though the Detroit Red Wings held the upper hand over the Pittsburgh Penguins in just about every facet of the game, including between the pipes, where Chris Osgood had clearly outplayed Marc-Andre Fleury.
But, with their backs nearly against the wall, Fleury and the Penguins weathered the storm in Game 3 against a Detroit team on a mission for a second straight Stanley Cup title.
Fleury surrendered a total of six goals on 56 shots as the Penguins fell behind 2-0 in the series by dropping the first two games in Detroit. Bad bounces and all, Fleury appeared to lack focus at times in allowing the Red Wings to take a pair of 3-1 victories in Motown, but the former No. 1 overall pick rebounded with a terrific Game 3 performance in front of his home crowd.
Fleury may not have had his best game of the playoffs - that came in the opening round against Philadelphia when he willed the Pens to a Game 4 victory with a series of spectacular saves - but the 24-year-old netminder did have his most important performance Tuesday night in the Steel City.
Neither Fleury nor Osgood looked particularly sharp in the a fast-paced opening period, and the teams were tied at 2-2 after 20 minutes of play. The Red Wings carried that pace into the second period, while Pittsburgh's skaters appeared lethargic and turned in an awful effort in the middle stanza.
That was Fleury's cue to shine, as he was forced to make 14 saves to keep the game close enough to give the Penguins a chance to win. When the horn sounded on the second period, the score still stood at 2-2, and that gave Pittsburgh the second chance it needed to put forth a winning effort in the third.
"It's probably a little bit easier when you come out of a bad period like that and you're still tight," said Pens captain Sidney Crosby. "You feel like you've kind of dodged a bullet...And it was up to us to respond with a better period. And as much as we weren't happy with the way we played in the second, we knew we still had our chance in the third, and wanted to make the most of it."
In the end, the Penguins came through with a clutch power-play goal off the stick of Sergei Gonchar midway through the third period, and then sealed the 4-2 win with an empty-net tally. But, had Fleury not turned back wave after wave of Detroit's offensive barrage in the second period there would've likely been little opportunity for late-game heroics. Not to mention, Pittsburgh would also have been staring at an almost insurmountable 3-0 series deficit against a talent-laden Red Wings club.
While Fleury boosted his confidence by stopping 27-of-29 shots in Game 3, it remains to be seen how Osgood will respond after allowing three goals on just 20 shots in a sub-par outing. Osgood only has five losses this postseason, and he posted a 3-1 record in the next game following the first four setbacks.
Fleury's Game 3 effort allowed the Pens to steal a game. If Pittsburgh is going to be able to come back and win this series, it will likely need him to run away with a few more.
NO DATSYUK, NO PROBLEM?
It didn't seem logical that Detroit could continue to play so well without one of its top players, and maybe Game 3 was an indication that the Red Wings are beginning to miss the play of Pavel Datsyuk.
Datsyuk has been out of action since suffering a foot injury in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against Chicago, but after losing an overtime test against the Blackhawks in the first game without their star Russian, the Red Wings rattled off four straight victories without him. That streak ended, of course, in Tuesday's Game 3 matchup.
Detroit clearly misses Datsyuk's offensive production, after all he led the club and was fourth in the NHL with 97 points this season. But, the Red Wings could also use the reigning Selke Trophy winner's help on the defensive end as well.
Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock has tried to use centerman Henrik Zetterberg and defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom to keep Crosby in check whenever he's on the ice. That strategy has clearly worked, as Sid the Kid has managed just one assist in the first three games. However, with Zetterberg and Lidstrom focused on Crosby, that allows other Penguins players, such as Evgeni Malkin, to take advantage of their own matchups.
Malkin turned in his best performance of the series with three assists on Tuesday, and now has one goal and four assists in the first three games of this set. In last year's Cup Finals, when Datsyuk was healthy, Malkin had just one goal and two assists in six games against the Red Wings.
The good news for Detroit is that Datsyuk was able to skate on Tuesday morning, and Babcock seemed optimistic that he may be able to play in Thursday's Game 4 matchup at the Igloo. That would certainly be a boost for the Red Wings in their quest to get two more wins, and yet another Stanley Cup crown.