For at least one game, NHL's good (Pens) conquered the bad (Wild)
It was a classic confrontation between the dark and the light.
Between the good NHL and the bad NHL (or, at least, the league's less flamboyant, less imaginative side).
Minnesota Wild fans, of course, will hotly resent the comparison and any suggestion that their team represents anything but all that is wholesome and good in the NHL, and to be fair, their home uniforms rock.
But when the Wild collided with the Pittsburgh Penguins in St. Paul on Tuesday night, there's no question it was a game that contained the possibility of showcasing the game's best and worst instincts.
The Wild, under former New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire, play stifling, conservative defense, and they do so with a ruthless degree of energy and dedication. Those techniques allowed the club to climb in the Western Conference standings this season, at least until injuries and a recent downturn in results, along with the fact they rarely score more than three goals a game, brought them back to the pack.
The Penguins, meanwhile, have to be considered the NHL's marquee team, if not in the standings then in personality and persuasion. Pittsburgh is a team that lives to score and features the game's top player and No. 1 ambassador, Sidney Crosby, along with other burgeoning young talents.
The Wild sell beautifully in Minnesota, a state that certainly knows the sport, even if it hasn't always supported the NHL.
But the Pens, with their combination of skill, talent and youth, represent the possibility of selling the game beyond borders and to rich new markets.
The Wild check to win. The Pens score to win, and maybe win new fans.
So, while an early-season meeting between the two nonconference clubs might not have had a crucial impact on the standings or how the 2007-08 season will unfold, it was a chance to assess the nature of the NHL game this season, the ever-changing balance between offense and defense in a sport that longs to be popular in places across the United States where it currently is not.
When it was all over, the Pens had defeated the Wild 4-2 in a fast, terrific contest, with Crosby dancing and dodging his way to a one-goal, three-assist effort that lifted him from 19th to sixth place on the NHL scoring list and put him ahead of last season's scoring pace, a pace that won him the league's scoring title and MVP honors.
It was a game that mattered a lot to Pittsburgh. It's a team that has sputtered this season, a team so blessed with artsy content that it was truly a shock Saturday night when not a single Penguin was able to score in eight shootout attempts against Montreal rookie goalie Carey Price before Habs defenseman Andrei Markov finally scored to end the contest.
That, combined with Crosby's slow individual start to the season (and the fact he was lead spokesman for the much-criticized new Reebok "uniform systems"), at least raised some troubling questions.
Were the Penguins going to be able to maintain the level of play that made them a team to watch last season, or even exceed that level?
Was this going to be another case of a team, like the Buffalo Sabres, that emphasized offense and creativity and ended up finding, in that approach, nothing but disappointment against grinding, defensive-minded teams?
One game, to be sure, was not going to answer either question entirely. But it would be a handy piece of evidence.
Going into the Minnesota game, a game that marked Crosby's first pro game in Minnesota since attending Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school in Faribault, Minn., at age 15, the Pens had been an unpredictable team.
"We've played good for stretches -- 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there -- but we haven't played a solid 60-minute game yet," Pens winger Gary Roberts said before the Wild game.
There had been some mildly disconcerting signs. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had been wobbly, while second-year forward Jordan Staal, a revelation in his 29-goal rookie campaign last season, had managed only a single goal and failed an early-season tryout on Crosby's wing.
The team's two veteran stalwarts up front, Roberts and Mark Recchi, had been slow out of the gate. Recchi, in fact, had been a target for media criticism when coach Michel Therrien kept insisting on putting him out with Crosby.
A bright light had been free-agent winger Petr Sykora, who had five goals. But then he was shut down, like most of the Pittsburgh forwards, in a surprising 5-2 home-ice loss to defensively suspect Toronto last Thursday.
That night turned out to be strange theater indeed, a sharp contrast to the night in Crosby's rookie season when he made a dazzling, highlight-reel move on Montreal goalie Jose Theodore to win a shootout and announce his arrival to the league.
Had the magic gone? So many things had gone right for the Penguins last season when they enjoyed a strong campaign and then made it back into the playoffs, where, suddenly, it seemed as though the flair and touch had left their sticks entirely.
The good news from Thursday's game, however, was that Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had shown signs of clicking as linemates. It was a combination usually seen only during Pittsburgh power plays, but Therrien turned to it in the loss to the Maple Leafs as a means of awakening the club's snoozing offense.
The Wild, always prepared under Lemaire, were certainly ready for the challenge. While goalie Niklas Backstrom was out with a groin injury, Minnesota had the checking line of Wes Walz between Stephane Veilleux and Branko Radivojevic set to choke the life out of the Crosby-Malkin-Ryan Malone unit, with the defensive pair of Kim Johnsson and Brent Burns out as often as possible.
It didn't work.
First, Malkin scored on a wraparound early in the second period off an excuse-me pass from Crosby to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead. Three minutes later, just 15 seconds after Veilleux had tied the game, Malkin scored again, this time by slamming the puck into the open side after it appeared Crosby had cleverly used one of his skates to direct the puck to his linemate while tied up himself by a Wild defender in front. The Walz line had some moments, but Therrien eluded the matchup by simply leaving Crosby and Malkin out for longer shifts, ultimately giving them chances against other Minnesota forward units.
Early in the third, Wild captain Brian Rolston tied the game 2-2, but this time it was Sykora, off a pretty pass from Crosby in the slot during a Pittsburgh power play, who beat Minny goalie Josh Harding to put the visitors ahead again.
Just over eight minutes later came the Crosby pièce de résistance. Sent in alone by a lead pass from Sergei Gonchar, Sid pulled away from Wild defenseman Martin Skoula and beat Harding, silencing the crowd in the rink Crosby once enjoyed as a Wild fan during the club's surprise run to the 2003 Western Conference finals.
"Crosby's line was on fire," Therrien said in an understatement afterward.
Dany Sabourin got the win, putting a little intrigue into the Pittsburgh goaltending picture. And while the Wild could justifiably argue they were shorthanded without Backstrom, Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra, on this night it was undeniable the Pittsburgh magic seemed back again.
Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg may still sit atop the league's scoring parade, but Crosby is surely on the rise, riding a 10-game points streak. Zetterberg, of course, is a wonderful story, a player once drafted 210th overall by the Red Wings in the 1999 draft.
But Crosby was drafted No. 1 in 2005 as the NHL emerged from the lockout, and he remains the league's most important individual commodity, its signature star.
The rest of the Penguins have to come along for the ride for this to work for the league as a whole, if the U.S. market in particular is ever going to pay attention and recognize Crosby in the same way it recognizes leading lights from other sports like Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady and Derek Jeter.
So, sure, it was only one game. But in a league that needs all the sizzle it can get, it was good to see the light conquer the dark.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
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