Finally, Pens' big three unite in playoffs
PITTSBURGH -- This is the stuff of Stanley Cup dreams.
For the first time this playoff year, the three were all in sync as the Penguins dumped Detroit 4-2 in Thursday's Game 4, which was undoubtedly the best hockey game in this now-deadlocked series.
"I wouldn't want to be on the other side, that's for sure," Pittsburgh forward Max Talbot said when asked what it was like to see the big three going all at once. "They're three really powerful and strong centermen. They're big. They win battles, and they're three leaders out there. You look at them on the bench, it's line after line after line."
What now has become a best-of-three competition to name a Stanley Cup champion resumes Saturday in Detroit, and the Red Wings, as tough as they are on home ice (10-1 this spring), must be shaken by how the powerful Penguins handled them in Game 4.
Detroit coach Mike Babcock acknowledged that his team lacked composure. He suggested that, in the wake of Staal's crucial short-handed goal that tied the score at 2 midway through the second period, his team turned the puck over more in the next five minutes than it normally would in a whole game.
It was during that stretch that Crosby and Malkin, forces of nature all spring, finished the job started by Staal by leading the Penguins to two more goals in less than four minutes.
Crosby scored his first goal of the series thanks to a great Malkin effort on a two-on-one just 1:59 after the Staal goal. Then, Crosby's sensational cross-ice pass to Tyler Kennedy finished off a pretty three-way play on another odd-man rush for the Penguins.
"I'm going to make the highlight reel for a while on that fourth one," Detroit netminder Chris Osgood said of the Kennedy goal. "Not that I like it, but what can I say? All three goals were great goals. Those are guys that are good players. We're trying our best. The bottom line is, we have to play better as a team."
Malkin, who scored the first goal of the game on a power play, continues to lead the NHL playoff scoring race with 35 points, seven of which are in the finals. Crosby, meanwhile, leads all playoff goal scorers with 15. In Game 4, Staal joined the party -- a little late, perhaps -- but he was a welcome guest as the Penguins successfully held serve at home after dropping the first two games in Detroit.
"Well, it felt pretty good," Staal said of his goal, just his third of the postseason and his first in eight games. "It took me a little while to get another."
He acknowledged that it might have been the biggest goal of his career.
"I don't think you can't beat a Stanley Cup final goal," Staal said. "And, you know, to try to change a game like that, it's pretty exciting."
If he has lacked the scoring touch that has seen him score 20 or more goals in two of his three NHL seasons, Staal's contributions still have not been insignificant. He kills penalties, and his line has been key in creating turnovers and drawing penalties. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said that it's not so much how many minutes Staal ends up playing (he was on the ice for 18:22 in Game 4) but that he's playing the right way with those minutes.
"Well, he's a big body, and I don't know how many minutes he can take playing the right way and playing physical and battling down on both ends of the rink," Bylsma said. "But I think one of the strengths of our team is to have those three guys down the middle of the ice. And if that means he's getting 18 minutes, those are pretty hard 18 minutes for him, and he plays the right way.
"He battles hard and he's physical and he's good in the offensive zone with the puck. He can take maybe a few more, but I think that would take away from the style and the physicality of his game."
Still, Staal's lack of playoff production, brought into keener focus with the two losses in Detroit to open this series, merely added to the underlying question that has been asked since the Penguins' began their surprising rise to prominence three playoff years ago: How do you keep all three of the big pivots happy? Or, more to the point, does one of them have to go?
With Crosby and Malkin signing long-term contract extensions, Staal would have seemed the obvious asset to move, and the whispers have percolated around him off and on for the past couple of seasons. He was rumored to be in play when Marian Hossa was being shopped by the Atlanta Thrashers. There were more rumors at this year's trade deadline.
Penguins GM Ray Shero told ESPN.com after Game 4 that he had had a long chat with Staal long before the young center signed a four-year contract extension.
"Just to make sure he understood where we were and his expectations, making sure this was a place he wanted to be," Shero said. "It wasn't about first-, second-, third-line center, it wasn't ever about that. Obviously, he's better than a third-line center, but [he's playing] behind Malkin and Crosby. But there were enough duties for him to get his 20 minutes a night and be a real factor."
Here's the thing. Staal, who also had an assist on the Penguins' first goal Thursday night, won't turn 21 until September.
"I mean, it's amazing," Shero said. "How many rounds of the playoffs has this kid played and been a factor, and a big factor? It's great to see. We need him to win. In a game like that, that's a great statement for those three big guys."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.