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Helene Elliott / ON THE NHL

Red Wings surprise detractors

May 25, 2008|Helene Elliott

DETROIT -- You can watch hockey for decades, analyze every statistic and sift through piles of predictions and still be surprised by what unfolds when millions of eyes and many lofty expectations settle onto the shoulders and into the psyches of players skating on an 85-foot-wide, 200-foot-long sheet of ice.

The first game of the Stanley Cup finals had been billed as a showcase for precocious Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, a new phase in the 20-year-old's wondrous career.

It was expected to be a clash of young versus old, of the geezer Detroit Red Wings, including several players who won the Cup wearing the winged wheel in 1997, 1998 and 2002, wheezing and trembling as the young Penguins tried to defeat them with doses of phenomenal skill, dazzling speed and who knows what heights of brilliance.

So much for soothsayers.

Crosby, poked and prodded and bashed from his first shift -- mostly courtesy of Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall -- was held to three harmless shots.

Evgeni Malkin, Crosby's trusty sidekick during the Penguins' march to the Eastern Conference title, was equally ineffective and took only one shot.

In the meantime, the Red Wings put together an impressive 4-0 victory in front of a roaring, standing-room-only crowd at Joe Louis Arena, mixing grit and opportunism with patience while dishing out hits with gusto.

They still had to do without playoff goal-scoring leader Johan Franzen, not yet recovered from a concussion, but they lacked nothing in the depth of their desire or their ability to pounce on their opponents' slightest mistake.

Winger Mikael Samuelsson, a burly Swede not known as a finesse player, scored unassisted goals off Pittsburgh turnovers in the second and third periods. After that, the Red Wings were in firm control, holding the Penguins to four shots in the second period and three in the third.

The Penguins, who hadn't trailed in the three series they won to reach this point, had to find new ways to measure their disappointment.

"Definitely, that was the worst performance of the playoffs," Coach Michel Therrien said. "We didn't compete like we were supposed to compete, and it's a good lesson."

Part of the joy of sports is discovering who competes best when the situation is at its worst, separating those who thrive under pressure and consistently think and act clearly under duress from those who fall apart under pressure.

The Red Wings have been dealt all kinds of adversity, going back to the severe injuries suffered by standout defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov when the limousine in which he was riding after celebrating the team's 1997 Cup triumph was involved in a one-car crash. The Red Wings won again, for him, in 1998, and that remains the last time a team has won two consecutive Cup championships.

They faced a different kind of adversity last spring, when defensemen Mathieu Schneider and Niklas Kronwall were injured and couldn't play against the Ducks in the Western Conference finals. Detroit lost that series, a memory that stung every player all summer and still fuels them.

On Saturday, the setbacks were relatively smaller: They took a series of needless penalties early on and had a goal wiped out on what was ruled to be goaltender interference by Tomas Holmstrom, but they never lost their poise or purpose.

"I thought we were tough on their defensemen in the last two periods of the game and made them skate back for a lot of pucks," said goaltender Chris Osgood, who made 19 saves in earning his 12th playoff shutout.

"And defense was difficult when guys are hitting you non-stop for 40 minutes, and that's what we accomplished. That's why we ended up getting the goals that we did."

The Penguins didn't start out wobbly. They carried the play early and lured the Red Wings into taking four consecutive penalties in the first period.

'I know a lot of people were worried about us being nervous. I thought it was the exact opposite, really," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I thought the first period, we came out great. The turnovers in the second period, those killed us."

Center Maxime Talbot acknowledged that the Penguins "have to be ready to win the finals," and he's right. They have excelled to this point but now must find a way to be better still, to think with more clarity, act with more sureness and turn the smallest break into a big advantage.

Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik promised that his team will be better Monday, when the series continues at Joe Louis Arena. "We're a pretty focused group," he said. "You've got to move on quick and learn from it."

Their primary lesson should be that few things in hockey, especially in the playoffs, play out as neatly as they're supposed to.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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