PITTSBURGH - The Big Three refused to let the Pittsburgh Penguins fall into another big hole.
Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal put the Penguins on their backs Thursday and carried them to a 4-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings that completely changed the complexion of this Stanley Cup final. Just days ago, they arrived home facing a big deficit. They'll head back to Detroit with new life and the series tied 2-2.
"These last couple at home have been desperation from us," said Crosby. "It's going to be like that all the way through here."
It's only fitting that the three young centres stepped up in the franchise's biggest victory since Mario Lemieux last brought the Stanley Cup here in 1992. Malkin, Crosby and Staal were top draft picks in consecutive years from 2004 to 2006 and have been catalysts for the Penguins resurgence.
The big momentum changer in Game 4 was a short-handed goal by Staal in the second period that tied the game and brought Mellon Arena to life. Crosby and Tyler Kennedy then followed with goals over a span of 5:37 that likely saved the Penguins season.
After going down 3-1 to Detroit in last year's Stanley Cup, they definitely didn't want to do it again.
"Coming back from that, I don't know if it's achievable," said Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik. "You never say never, but a team this good and this poised - there's no way you can go down 3-1."
Instead, there's a sense that they might be getting to the mighty Red Wings.
Orpik recalls looking at the visitors bench during the second period and seeing some players slumped over. A few others appeared to be frustrated and exchanging words.
"Once we made it 3-2, especially 4-2, they started talking a lot more and trying to initiate stuff after the whistle," said Orpik. "That's not their game. It played right into our hands really.
"They want to waste their energy doing that ... I think it's to our advantage."
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock acknowledged that his team was guilty of losing its composure, and that might not even be his biggest problem.
He's still missing the kind of 1-2 punch that has been so successful for Pittsburgh. The Wings again played without Hart Trophy finalist Pavel Datsyuk, who appeared to be on the brink of returning before deciding against it at the last minute.
"Pavel was pushing it to try to go," said Babcock.
The focus will once again be on his status heading into a crucial Game 5.
Babcock has decided to give his players a day off before they play again on Saturday at Joe Louis Arena. After four games in six nights to start the series, he's concerned about fatigue.
"We need to get rested," said Babcock. "We skated yesterday because that's what we wanted to do, we thought it was a good idea to flush. We're obviously not doing that tomorrow because it didn't work. And that's how scientific that decision is being made. ...
"The next game's absolutely huge for us."
Malkin had the other goal for Pittsburgh in Game 4 while Darren Helm and Brad Stuart replied for the Red Wings.
The real difference ended up being the play of the Penguins cornerstone trio, who all finished with a goal and an assist. That pushed Malkin's playoff-leading points total to 35 - the most since Wayne Gretzky had 40 in 1993.
Crosby's goal was his first of the series while Staal's was his first in eight games. That changed everything.
"You fight and fight, try to get back into your system, get some momentum," said forward Bill Guerin. "Then you get a big goal like that, against that power play, and it's a big boost."
This is the first time the series has deviated from the pattern established by the teams in last year's Stanley Cup final. The Penguins have been insisting that the loss to Detroit last spring was going to make them tougher this time around, and they proved it with a pair of victories on home ice.
They started the series by falling into a two-game deficit but everything is even now.
"We just kept at it," said Staal. "We're not going to change our game ever."
Another big performer for the Penguins was goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, himself a top Penguins draft pick. He finished with 37 saves and did a marvellous job seeing the puck through all of the traffic created by Detroit.
He outplayed counterpart Chris Osgood, who allowed three or more goals in back-to-back playoff games for the first time in the past two post-seasons.
The series now shifts back to Joe Louis Arena, where the Penguins are going to have to win at least one game if they are to get their hands on the Stanley Cup. Even in all of the excitement following this victory, nobody was suggesting that it's going to be an easy task.
"This series is far from being over," said Penguins forward Max Talbot.
Notes: The team with the fewest shots has won all four games. Detroit held a 39-31 advantage in Game 4 ... Red Wings forward Kris Draper played for the first time in the series, replacing Justin Abdelkader ... All six of Marian Hossa's playoff goals have come in Game 4s ... Nicklas Lidstrom played his 232nd playoff game, passing Guy Carbonneau for sixth place all-time ... Announced attendance was 17,132 inside Mellon Arena. Thousands more watched on an outdoor screen in front of the arena.
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