Commentary

No matter how this series ends, we'll remember Pens' determination

Updated: June 3, 2008, 11:49 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- No matter how this Stanley Cup finals series ends, whenever it ends, this 4-3 Pittsburgh Penguins win, on the road, at 9:57 of the third overtime period, stands as a testament to a team's courage and hope when many believed they had none to offer.

No matter how this suddenly compelling series ends up, this was a night Marc-Andre Fleury will remember for all time, a night in which he turned aside 55 of 58 Detroit shots, the most in a Stanley Cup finals game since 1998.

Now matter how this series turns out, this Pittsburgh victory will be remembered for the will and determination of players.

Players like Ryan Malone, who took a Hal Gill shot to the nose in the second period, the same nose that was broken earlier in the series by Niklas Kronwall, and played most of his 29:37 minutes with a piece of cotton batting protruding from one nostril. And by Sergei Gonchar, who crashed headlong into the boards late in the second period while trying to break up a scoring play and was in such pain he could not play in overtime but was on the bench nonetheless when the third extra session started. And when Jiri Hudler was whistled for clipping Rob Scuderi with a high stick at 9:21 of the third overtime, Gonchar went gingerly over the boards and helped control the play that led to Sykora's winner, drawing an assist.

"They didn't have to show me. I know my team," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "I know the character of those guys. You see guys like Ryan Malone receive a shot in the face and come back. And it's pretty amazing, the price and the sacrifice that a lot of those guys have to pay."

This was a Penguins team that looked emotionally drained after losing Game 4 on home ice Saturday. There were questions about Therrien's use of Sidney Crosby and his game plan. There was the ongoing savaging of Evgeni Malkin. Gonchar blew off a meeting with reporters in Detroit when the team arrived here Sunday.

And when the Penguins saw a 2-0 lead slip away in the third period before the persistent, machine-like onslaught of the Red Wings' attack, it seemed the dye was cast. The Stanley Cup was in the house. The Wings, 9-1 at home in the playoffs, had taken a 3-2 lead with half the third period remaining.

This series was over. Surely everyone in a jam-packed Joe Louis Arena believed it. As did the Red Wings. Even some of the Penguins seemed to believe it with the way they flailed after the puck in the third, being outshot 14-4.

Yet there was the inextinguishable Max Talbot, on the ice in the final minute for the Penguins, sliding over the boards with Fleury on the bench, banging in a loose puck from the side of the net to tie the score with 34.3 seconds left.

Even then, the Wings didn't break stride and nearly took the lead again before the end of regulation.

Detroit didn't waver from its game plan in overtime, repeatedly intercepting Pittsburgh passes, working the puck deep into the Pittsburgh zone, pressuring a weary defense corps that was without its best puck-moving defenseman in Gonchar.

[+] EnlargePenguins
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesPetr Sykora's winner ended a Game 5 that lasted 4- hours and ended at 12:46 a.m. ET.

Time after time, Fleury responded with big saves or watched as pucks whistled past the Penguins' net. On one play, the puck twice bounced on top of the net behind an unsuspecting Fleury.

Through the 2½ overtime periods, Fleury made 24 stops, including 13 in the first extra frame. If there is a member of the Red Wings team that did not enjoy a glorious scoring chance in extra time, they should make themselves known, because we know of no such player.

"I think the hardest thing in a game like this is the mental part," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "It's not the physical part. The mind drives the body. Your body can keep going. It's the mental part.

"You were that close, and then, oh, tough. And I think it's natural to feel bad for us for a bit, and feel bad for yourself. But it's the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's not supposed to be easy. It's supposed to be a battle and, obviously, we're in one."

In the end, there was Petr Sykora, a player who has been marginalized in this series, seemingly overwhelmed by the physicality of the play and the largeness of the stakes, making the play of the season, snapping a shot over Chris Osgood to suddenly change the complexion of the series.

"Yeah, I got a tough few games the last few games. No bounces, no real shots on net, and it's nice to get over like that to keep us alive," Sykora said. "And we get to live another day, just another game on Wednesday. And I think if you can come up with the win, it's going to be a lot of pressure on them."

Here's the funny thing for a player who had so little going on in this series. As he passed the NBC broadcasters between overtime periods, he joked about how he was going to score the big one.

"Something stupid I said. Just, 'Guys, I'm just going to get one, so just don't worry about the game. I'm going to get a goal,'" Sykora admitted sheepishly.

He was more than a little lucky, too, having blasted a shot about 20 feet wide moments before, but the puck struck referee Dan O'Halloran and the Penguins were able to recover.

Babcock had a bad feeling when he saw the Czech forward with the puck, recalling his ability to score when both were with Anaheim during the 2003 playoffs.

"And I hated to see Petr Sykora get that puck late," Babcock said. "You just know it's going in. He's that kind of guy. He won a game for me like that in Dallas in five overtimes."

In the end, who knows what that goal will mean.

Does it send a shiver of self-doubt up the spines of the Red Wings, who should, by rights, be starting an offseason of celebration?

Does it re-energize the Penguins, who seemed down to their last ounce of will?

One thing is for sure: In the moments after Sykora scored and the Penguins came off the bench to mob Fleury, the keepers of the Cup boxed up the big silver chalice and made ready to move it to Pittsburgh, where the battle will begin anew Wednesday night.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.