By Paul Ladewski
When Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma talks about the importance of his team to play “The Right Way,” it’s code for an aggressive, up-tempo style designed to accentuate its youth and athleticism and tire opponents late in games.
So far, so good. Not only did Penguins get back into the Stanley Cup Finals with back-to-back victories against the Red Wings at home, but they made considerable inroads in the war of attrition as well.
In the four games thus far, the Penguins own a 43-25 advantage in shots on goal in the third period, which was fairly indicative of their edge in play.
The Red Wings were some tired puppies late in games, a fact that even head coach Mike Babcock alluded to after Game 4 on Thursday evening.
“Sometimes we can read too much into energy level, just because when a team gets going, it has more energy than the other team,” Babcock said. “That’s what happened tonight – they had more energy than us.”
Despite the four-games-in-six-nights meat-grinder, Babcock called for a practice on the open date between Games 3 and 4, a decision that apparently did not go over well with some of the older players.
The outcome prompted Babcock to rethink the strategy, as the team had an optional skate on Friday in advance of the fifth game.
Even the normally air-tight Red Wings defense was mistake-prone in the 4-2 decision on Thursday night.
The unit leans heavily on 39-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom and 35-year-old Brian Rafalski, each of whom has logged heavy minutes that have reduced their effectiveness as a result.
In Game 4, Lidstrom was very mortal for a change — zero hits, points and shots on goal and a minus-1 rating. He resembled a veteran who has averaged 24 minutes, 42 seconds per game, more than any skater in the series.
Rafalski had one assist and a minus-1 rating and failed to record a hit or a shot on goal. He allowed Jordan Staal to beat him on a short-handed goal that was crucial to the outcome.
Henrik Zetterberg and linemate Johan Franzen also looked gassed in the third period. “I don’t think Z and Mule had as much jump tonight,” Babcock said.
In the case of Zetterberg, the fatigue was understandable. The center shadowed Penguins counterpart Sidney Crosby throughout the first three games and split the load with Valtteri Filppula in the fourth.
Unlike Crosby, Zetterberg also takes a regular shift on the penalty-kill unit.
Result: Zetterberg averaged 22 minutes 51 seconds per game, a full three minutes more than he did in the regular season.
“That’s a lot of minutes for a guy to handle,” Bylsma pointed out. “It’s challenge to chase Sidney Crosby around the ice.”
Clearly, the Red Wings miss injured center Pavel Datsyuk, who is expected to be available in the fifth game.
Even if his troublesome foot cooperates, Datsyuk probably won’t be a significant factor after an extended layoff. And against whom will he be paired against? Crosby? Malkin? Good luck with that.
The question is, how much do the Penguins have in their own tanks? In the last two games, the Red Wings had a wide advantage in shots on goal, 68-52, as they cycled the puck for shifts at a time in the attack zone on several occasions.
Like Lidstrom, veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar hasn’t been himself at times in the series. He still feels the effects of the Alexander Ovechkin cheapshot in the Eastern Conference finals.
This much is certain: The longer the Penguins stay alive, the better their chances to survive.