Twenty-five years to the day after they selected Mario Lemieux with the first overall pick in the NHL draft, the Pittsburgh Penguins gave their fans another great moment to remember.
With The Magificent One and the final sellout crowd of the season at Mellon Arena looking on, the hometown Penguins played near-perfect hockey in a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final. With the win, the Cup won't be handed out until Friday night at Joe Louis Arena after a seventh and deciding game.
"It's an unbelievable opportunity," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby told reporters after the victory. "You know, we weren't thinking about last year at all. But, you know, we found a way to survive, that's what we had to do tonight. And now it's anyone's game. And, it's going to be a great challenge. They play great at home but we've got to battle and find a way to pull it off."
Historically, Game 7 in the final has favoured the home team, with the 1971 Montreal Canadiens and 1945 Toronto Maple Leafs being the only road winners in 14 occasions. And if Pittsburgh wants so much as a sniff of the Cup on the road, they'll need to dominate Detroit the same way they did for most of Tuesday night's must-win game.
The Penguins carried the play for the first two periods, outshooting the Wings 24-12 and keeping sustained pressure in the offensive zone with solid forechecking. They also got plenty of momentum in the first 20 minutes with Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula going to the penalty box. But even with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin hovering around the net, they failed to capitalize early against Chris Osgood.
"He played well throughout the whole game," said Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom. "We need Ozzie to play the way he did. We know he's going to respond the same in Game 7."
The lack of goals didn't phase the Penguins going in the second period, as they continued their strong forecheck out of the gate. With all sorts of pressure in the Red Wings' zone, it finally paid off at the 51-second mark with Jordan Staal scoring his fourth goal of the postseason on a two-on-one rush.
"Both teams were patient, but also worked hard and battled for their opportunities," explained Crosby. "But when it's tight like it is, you've got to be responsible and wait for your chances. Then, like I said, it just comes down to execution. So we'll take that lesson from this game."
The Red Wings' offence picked up a bit in the second period, with the line of Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Dan Cleary providing most of Detroit's shots. Zetterberg had some great scoring chances on his own, with two point blank shots stopped by Marc-Andre Fleury in the first. He also came close to scoring the equalizer late in the second, with a dangerous shot that beat Fleury and ricocheted off the far post.
"Those things happen," said Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock after the game. "I thought they were better than us, 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."
While the Red Wings came out firing on all cylinders to start the third, it all appeared to fizzle out after Pittsburgh's Tyler Kennedy scored his fifth playoff goal at the 5:35 mark. But the Wings finally got on the board and cut the lead in half on Kris Draper's first goal of the postseason just two-and-a-half minutes later.
It didn't get any easier for the Penguins, as the Wings earned back-to-back power plays on penalties to Malkin and Bill Guerin. But the defending champions were unable to get any decent scoring chances with the Penguins' penalty killers holding the fort in front of Fleury.
"The big story of Game 6 was that Pittsburgh decided to make this a street fight," explained NHL on TSN analyst Pierre McGuire. "It was a heroic effort by guys like Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik and finally - Marc-Andre Fleury - that was the huge difference for the Pittsburgh Penguins."
For Fleury, the win was sweet redemption after Saturday's 5-0 drubbing in Detroit. He was outstanding between the pipes, making 25 saves - including a breakaway chance by Cleary in the dying moments of regulation. "As soon as he made that save on Zetterberg (in the first) with the blocker, you knew he was on his game," Penguins forward Maxime Talbot told TSN.
Fleury also got some big help in front of him from Scuderi. The Penguins blueliner made a brilliant play midway through the third, poking the puck out of the Penguins' crease during the Red Wings' power play and throwing himself in the paint again in the last seconds to preserve the win.
"I'll have to take him (Scuderi) out," a smiling Fleury told TSN. "He saved my butt and did a great job."
At the other end, Chris Osgood continued to make his case as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate, stopping 29 of 31 shots in the one-goal loss.
The Penguins made one lineup change up front, with Petr Sykora returning to the roster in place of Miroslav Satan. Sykora was in the Penguins' lineup for only six of Pittsburgh's first 19 postseason games and none of the first five in the final. The Penguins also won their first playoff game in which Crosby and Malkin did not record a point. Entering Tuesday's game, one of either player had notched a point in each of Pittsburgh's 29 postseason victories since 2007.
"It's not going to be the same guy every night, but that's why we've had success," said Crosby. "We lean on each other, and in a big game like this, TK, Staalsy, they've come up with some big goals, and those role players so to speak, they get big plays, and we've depended on them all season long."
By comparison, former teammate and Public Enemy No. 1 Marian Hossa was also held off the scoresheet and is still goal-less in this year's final. "This is a guy who is supposed to be a difference maker," said NHL on TSN analyst Ray Ferraro. "He was booed for the first time in the game in the second period - because he hadn't touched the puck. He was pushed off the puck. He looked scared to me. He looked scared to make a mistake, he was scared to handle the puck...this is a guy who has done 'zero' in the Stanley Cup final."
With the Penguins' win on Tuesday, home clubs are 6-0 in the Stanley Cup final for the fifth time since the best-of-seven format began in 1939. The home club went on to win Game 7 on three of the four previous occasions (Detroit Red Wings in 1955, Montreal Canadiens in 1965 and New Jersey Devils in 2003).
The only club to win Game 7 on the road in the Stanley Cup final after the home team won the first six games was the 1971 Montreal Canadiens, who defeated the Chicago Blackhawks.