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Penguins mix it up in face of adversity

May 26, 2008|Helene Elliott

DETROIT -- They are not panicking, the Pittsburgh Penguins were quick to say, merely reacting to what they saw and did -- and wish they had done -- in losing the first game of the Stanley Cup finals to the Detroit Red Wings.

Coach Michel Therrien, who called his team's 4-0 loss its worst playoff performance, reconfigured his lines during practice Sunday at Joe Louis Arena, trying to create the spark that was so glaringly absent Saturday in Game 1.

He often tinkered with the lines during the season but left well enough alone while the Penguins took 3-0 series leads over Ottawa, the New York Rangers and Philadelphia before closing them out.

But until Saturday, the Penguins hadn't faced a team with the Red Wings' experience, speed and unshakable resolve and hadn't been pressured into as many neutral-zone turnovers as the Red Wings caused.

They hadn't been denied second chances in front of the net as effectively as the Red Wings denied them Saturday, and Sidney Crosby hadn't been contained as effectively as Henrik Zetterberg contained him.

This is the Penguins' first encounter with playoff adversity, and their response tonight in Game 2 will determine whether they will make this a competitive series or whether they're willing to settle for a learning experience to draw upon if they get this far again.

Therrien wants grit to complement speed, so he put in Maxime Talbot with Evgeni Malkin, who slumbered through Game 1, and Petr Sykora, who had no shots. Crosby will center for Ryan Malone, who can be a big body in front of the net and a target for Crosby's passes, and skillful Marian Hossa.

Gary Roberts, who brings a physical and veteran presence, will replace Georges Laraque on a line with Adam Hall and Jarkko Ruutu. Speedy winger Pascual Dupuis will move from Crosby's line to flank Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy.

"We played with a set lineup 20, 30 games or so. Sometimes you get so used to it that when you mix it up, it brings energy," said Ruutu, who had played on Staal's line.

"Sometimes a change like that can make a big difference."

It will have to.

The Penguins couldn't cash in four straight power plays in the first period Saturday, losing a chance to control the tempo and quiet a roaring crowd.

They couldn't get Malkin going and they couldn't stop the Red Wings' third- and fourth-line players, as Mikael Samuelsson scored twice and Dan Cleary scored a short-handed goal.

"We've got to make adjustments," Therrien said. "Every team has to make adjustments through the course of the playoffs. And we believe those adjustments are going to help us to get success."

He said he had a chat with Malkin, who has one goal in his last five games and five points and a minus-2 plus/minus rating in seven road playoff games.

"Just a reminder of a few things he needs to focus on," Therrien said. "With a player like this, I believe you've got to be positive with him."

It seemed to have an impact.

"I play next game better," the Russian center said. "First game I am a little bit nervous."

There's no time for nerves now.

Crosby downplayed the changes, saying the Penguins were focused on matchups and how to compete against a deeper defense than any they've seen this spring.

"It's only Game 1, so I don't think it's desperation," he said.

No, but they're already at a statistical disadvantage. Teams that have won the first game of the final have won the Cup in 53 of 68 seasons (78%) since the best-of-seven format was introduced in 1939. The last team to rebound from a Game 1 loss in the final was the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Red Wings' only likely change tonight would be to add productive winger Johan Franzen, who's awaiting medical clearance to play after suffering a concussion. He practiced all-out Sunday and said he might play tonight, in Game 3 on Wednesday in Pittsburgh "or maybe both," he said, smiling.

By then, the Penguins could be in too deep a hole to recover.

"Everybody knows that the Red Wings are a really good team. They're not there in the Stanley Cup final for nothing," Dupuis said. "But if we play our game and use our speed and move our feet I think we're a better team, a better team than what we showed [Saturday] night, anyway.

"They're a good team, don't get me wrong, but we made them look good."

Tonight, the Penguins have no choice but to be the better team.

--

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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