A playoff pattern? Not in these finals
DETROIT -- It hasn't quite been a mini-series, nor a drama in seven acts, but rather these Stanley Cup finals have been like six separate and distinct entities linked only by the appearance each night of the same two teams.
A playoff series will often follow some sort of pattern, whether it's an ongoing physical battle, as was the case in the Anaheim/Detroit Western Conference finals, or a test of wills between offensive wizards, as was the case in the Washington/Pittsburgh second-round series.
But the Cup finals, which will end with a seventh and deciding game here Friday night, have been curiously immune to those kinds of trends. It has made the series both compelling and maddeningly difficult to predict.
"I think that's what happens when two good teams play each other. You're going to see different things every night," Detroit defenseman Brett Lebda said Thursday morning. "When you have two good teams, after each game, each one goes back and looks at the game and makes adjustments. Those adjustments can make the other team make adjustments, then, in the same turn, you get a whole different game."
Detroit coach Mike Babcock suggested four of the six games could have gone either way, with two being "momentum" games where the winning team exerted its influence and made the other team look bad.
"You know, I have to tell you, I've been real impressed," Babcock said. "I think they played hard. I think our team has played hard. The playoffs for our team this year has been as big a battle as we've ever had for sure. Just with what's gone on and some of the injuries we've had and that.
"I've been really impressed with our team's will and our guys' attitude over the last couple of days. Excited to go."
Here's a look at how this series has unfolded:
Game 1: The early holeWhen we think of Game 1, we think of the shift from hell endured by Penguins defensemen Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill as they could not get off the ice after about two minutes of constant action. Even though Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma deftly used his timeout to give his weary players a break after an icing call, it still didn't matter as the Wings scored off the ensuing faceoff with Johan Franzen pushing the puck over a fallen Marc-Andre Fleury with less than a minute left in the second period to take a 2-1 lead.
It would turn out to be the winner even though the Penguins enjoyed more higher-quality scoring chances on the night. Later, Scuderi would credit the Wings' savvy for taking advantage of the fact the Penguins were tired by continuing to hammer the puck back into the Pittsburgh zone and preventing a change. Without Pavel Datsyuk in the lineup, the Wings enjoyed production from lesser lights, including rookie Justin Abdelkader, while Fleury looked shaky as the Pens dug themselves into an early series hole.
Game 2: Bad luck? MaybeThe second of back-to-back games produced an identical 3-1 result in favor of the Detroit Red Wings. On this night, the Penguins hit goal posts and may have in fact actually scored when Sidney Crosby's goalmouth shot went into or underneath Henrik Zetterberg, but video replay could not conclude the puck was across the goal line.
Bad luck? Maybe. Or maybe just not enough finish for the Penguins, who returned home to Pittsburgh after being outscored 13-2 in the first two games of the past two Cup finals against Detroit. Along with Abdelkader, who scored his second career playoff goal after his first in Game 1, the Wings also got a goal from Jonathan Ericsson, who had his appendix removed at the end of the Western Conference finals. The game also featured a Detroit goal that came after an icing call against the Penguins in which some believed Bylsma should have called a timeout.
Darned if you do, darned if you don't. If there is something that we hearken to in the wake of Game 2, though, it's Bill Guerin's foreshadowing suggestion that "crazier things have happened" than the Pens coming back from a 2-0 series deficit. Turns out he was right.
Game 3: The one they had to winIn a series lacking a truly defining moment -- or perhaps blessed with many -- the Penguins ended up winning a game they had to have when they were fortunate not to be down 3-0 and planning their trips to the cottage.
Outshot 14-4 in the second period, the Penguins looked befuddled and the Wings in control except on the scoreboard. But Mikael Samuelsson, who has one assist in this series, rang one off the post after waltzing in alone after a bad Penguins line change and Pittsburgh escaped the second period tied at 2.
In the third, a refocused Pittsburgh team returned to the ice and dominated play territorially. Then, thanks to a wicked Sergei Gonchar slap shot on the power play and an empty-net goal, the Penguins crawled back into the series with a 4-2 victory.
Game 4: The breakoutFor a while, this looked and felt like it might be the defining moment of the series, the moment when the Penguins took that giant step forward and pushed the Red Wings into the shadows once and for all.
With Jordan Staal scoring his first goal of the series, a huge short-handed effort that tied the game at 2 midway through the second, and Evgeni Malkin and Crosby finally imposing their will on the Wings, the Penguins earned their second straight 4-2 victory to even the series.
Babcock acknowledged his team looked flustered and there were reports of players chirping at each other on the bench as they melted down in the second period and closed out in the third period.
Game 5: The blowoutOK, wait a minute. Hold off on engraving those Penguins names on the Cup. The Red Wings, back in the cozy confines of Joe Louis Arena, where they are 11-1 heading into Game 7, kept the Penguins at bay through a frenzied opening sequence that lasted more than seven minutes without a whistle.
The Penguins could not capitalize on several glorious scoring chances and failed to generate much on the first power play of the game. When Dan Cleary floated one by Fleury and Chris Osgood neatly set up the Wings' second goal early in the second period at the end of yet another Penguins penalty, the rout was on.
The Wings scored four times in the second period, three on the power play, as the Penguins came completely unglued. "We were too revved and I don't know what we were trying to do," Scuderi said after the game.
The game was also noteworthy in that it featured a penalty-minute count of 48 for Pittsburgh and 14 for Detroit, and uncharacteristic frustration penalties by Crosby and Malkin, who had three minors on the night. The Pens kept saying it was better to lose that way than in overtime, but it sounded very much like the tune sung by a team that was out of music.
Game 6: It wasn't pretty, but ...
Or not. We may not be able to figure this series out, but, gosh darn, it sure is fun. The Pens trotted out their grittiest effort of the playoffs as they jumped out to a 2-0 lead thanks to goals by Staal and Tyler Kennedy, and then hung on for dear life to squeak out a 2-1 victory and set the stage for Friday's one-game showdown for the Stanley Cup.
Neither Crosby nor Malkin registered a point for the second straight game and the Penguins won for the first time this spring without one of their big guns scoring. The final stand included two crucial saves by defenseman Scuderi as the Wings poured at the Penguins with Osgood on the bench for an extra attacker.
It may not have been pretty, but, at this stage of the playoffs, pretty is in the eye of the beholder, and the final result sure looked good to the Penguins and their fans. For the Wings, they packed up and headed back home for what they hope will be the final home victory of the season.
Game 7: What now?Your guess is as good as ours, but we're pretty sure it'll be something we remember for a long time to come.
"Tomorrow's game, as much as it's something you dream about your whole life, having this opportunity in Game 7, and I said this yesterday, in front of our crowd, in this state, with the city, and the state and the way it is right now economically, it's been fantastic," Babcock said. "But it's a dream you've had. But now you get to control that dream. I think that's the best dream you could ever have. So, to me, it's just an exciting opportunity."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.