Commentary

Missed opportunities in Game 4 will haunt this young Pens squad

Updated: June 1, 2008, 3:16 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- As the Pittsburgh Penguins filed off the ice at Mellon Arena on Saturday night, the tips of their skates hanging over the playoff abyss, one wondered how long they'll think about that squandered two-man advantage in Game 4.

Two days for sure.

A week?

Forever?

In the wake of the Red Wings' hard-fought 2-1 win, which gave them a 3-1 series lead, one has to imagine the magic spell that has conjured up this young Pittsburgh team's run to the Stanley Cup finals is broken.

Poof.

After winning nine straight games at Mellon Arena this spring, the Penguins lost for the first time here.

After going 11-0 in playoff games in which they scored first, they lost for the first time despite opening the scoring with a Marian Hossa power-play goal just 2:51 into the crucial contest.

They now face a monumental task heading into Monday's Game 5 in Detroit. Since the best-of-seven format was introduced in 1939, only one team has come back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the Cup.

Despite the noise from the 66th straight Mellon Arena sellout (cue the spooky music, all you Mario Lemieux fans), you could almost hear the distinct "pop" of Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup dream midway through the third period, when the talented Penguins could not capitalize on a two-man advantage lasting 1:27.

"Tough to explain," an extremely subdued Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien said after the game. "And there's no doubt we needed to get that goal. We didn't execute well. We got a good chance to tie up the game right there and we didn't do the job."

The Penguins trailed 2-1 at the time, thanks to a Jiri Hudler goal 2:26 into the third period. That goal -- the eventual winner -- came after the Penguins failed to clear their own zone after taking several cracks at it.

Then, with Kirk Maltby already in the box for hooking, Andreas Lilja was whistled for interfering with Sidney Crosby, setting up the defining moment of the game and, perhaps, the series.

The Penguins had already scored once on the man advantage and scored a power-play goal in Game 3 as well. For a Penguins team that would send players like Crosby, Hossa, Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar over the boards, 1:27 of 5-on-3 hockey was a lifetime.

Or it should have been.

Yet the Detroit Red Wings would not break.

Henrik Zetterberg tied up Crosby at the side of the net on a crucial sequence, preventing Crosby from poking home a loose puck. Later, Zetterberg controlled the puck and lugged it down the ice to kill off more valuable time. As the clock ticked away on their opportunity to tie the game -- and possibly even this series at two games apiece and throw some doubt into the stainless steel Red Wings -- the Penguins seemed to wilt under the reality of what was at stake.

Ryan Malone couldn't get the puck deep, and the Wings cleared the zone.

Malkin, who endured his third miserable outing of the four games played in the finals, couldn't control the puck just inside the blue line, and the Wings cleared.

"In those situations, the pressure of the playoffs and the situation helps the penalty kill," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "[It] always helps the penalty kill. If that's November, it's tic-tac-toe and it's in the back of your net so fast. But the pressure makes it harder for them to execute."

Therrien called a timeout with 25 seconds left in the two-man advantage, but Malkin turned the puck over again. Later, the Hart Trophy candidate appeared in his dressing room stall with his head in his hands.

"He tried. Nothing is happening for him," Therrien said of Malkin's effort. "I think his intentions are there, but the results are not there."

The big Russian, who for much of these playoffs looked like a Conn Smythe candidate, has been reduced to a rumor over the past eight games, in which he has contributed one goal and one assist.

His lack of production has placed an incredible amount of pressure on Crosby's line. And even though Hossa had one of his finest nights of the playoffs -- creating chances, retrieving the puck repeatedly in the Detroit zone and scoring the Pens' only goal -- it wasn't nearly enough for a team that has scored just four goals in four games in the finals.

"Tonight could have gone either way," Crosby said. "We know we have to even play better, but it's nice to know that we're right there and we play our game. There's no choice now. I mean, we've got to win to stand."

If that 1:27 will continue to dog this Penguins team between now and Game 5, the Red Wings might remember it in a much different manner -- as the moment they broke the spirit of the Penguins and locked in on their fourth Stanley Cup since 1997.

Because in the end, this moment was as much about Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall and Nicklas Lidstrom as the foibles of the Penguins' stars.

Babcock said he was incredulous that Lilja was penalized in the first place, but he praised the intuitiveness of his star players -- players whom he entrusted with the most important moment of the game, and maybe the series.

"The offensive guys on our team have such great instincts," Babcock said. "They can cut plays off and knock down passes. I thought they did a real good job. They kept them at bay."

Zetterberg was asked if that 5-on-3 kill was the greatest sequence of hockey in his career -- one that includes a Stanley Cup win and an Olympic gold medal.

"It's tough to compare," he said. "You know, they had a great opportunity to tie it up. And it's a challenge to play against such good players, especially when you're down two guys. They have a lot of room. And you practice a lot on it during the year, and it's fun to have a chance to do it in a game."

Earlier in the game, the Penguins had opened the scoring on the power play, with Hossa making a nice move to tuck the puck behind Detroit netminder Chris Osgood from the side of the net. By the third period, though, the Red Wings became more aggressive even though they were down two men.

"In the first period, if you remember, they had three power plays and they tic-tac-toed the puck around," Babcock said. "We were on our heels. We were too cautious early and giving too much respect. I thought as the game went on, we did a better job limiting their time and space."

After the game, there seemed to be little in the way of excitement from the Red Wings players and certainly nothing approaching relief at having dodged a bullet. Rather, they spoke matter-of-factly about the job they had done, as if it was merely what they expected of themselves.

It is the way they play the game most of the time, and it was certainly how they played the game for that 1:27 stretch of the third period that has set them on their way to another championship.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.