Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg battle for a puck along the boards. The two have been at the center of the line matchup tilt. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
I’m not much of an X’s and O’s guy, but Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final provided a unique display of strategizing by coaches Dan Bylsma and Mike Babcock that I surprisingly got caught up in.
The battle, of course, revolved around line changes. Pittsburgh, playing at home for the first time this series, finally had the last move at the gate. This enabled Bylsma to get Sidney Crosby away from the harsh and studious surveillance of both Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom, at least in theory.
Babcock, conversely, took up the challenge of getting Zetterberg and/or Lidstrom on the ice every time The Kid jumped on for a shift. The result was more political thriller than popcorn action flick, but riveting in its own way nonetheless.
Why? Because the Penguins simply had to take the game. A Wings win would have been soul-destroying on the banks of the Three Rivers and meant Game 4 would have likely ended the series in a sweep. This post-season has been too good for such an inglorious fate.
As I’ve said before, the Detroit Red Wings are a highly functional killing machine and to beat them an opponent must play as close to perfect a game as possible. The Wings punish with great vengeance and furiously anger those who turn the puck over or fail to cover their man (witness Detroit’s first goal in Game 3), so the Pens had a tall task on their hands.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh fans, Bylsma’s strategy worked. Zetterberg still factored in on both Detroit tallies, but all the line shifting seemed to take the Wings out of their comfort zone by the third period. This was crucial, as the game was still tied 2-2 after Pittsburgh weathered a Wings storm in the second frame.
Other than anecdotal evidence, the numbers back this theory up, too: In Game 2, when the Wings had last change at Joe Louis, Lidstrom played just five shifts shorter than 30 seconds long and two longer than 1:30 (the average NHL shift is about 45 seconds). In Game 3, however, the future Hall of Famer was pulled off the ice six times before 30 seconds elapsed and logged three shifts of 1:30 or more, including a mammoth 2:44 shift late in the second period.
Zetterberg was in the same boat. In the homey confines of Detroit Sunday, ‘Hank’ had just two shifts less than 30 seconds and none more than a minute-and-a-half. Two days later in Pittsburgh, as he chased Crosby back and forth to the bench, Zetterberg had eight shifts less than 30 seconds, including two consecutive runs of 16 and nine seconds. Zetterberg also had one shift that was more than 1:30.
In the game within the game, Babcock was keeping seven Red Wings on the ice during TV timeouts, just to see which Penguins were coming on. While Crosby didn’t score in the contest, he did tally his first point of the series with an assist on Sergei Gonchar’s game-winner. Evgeni Malkin, the team’s other superstar and NHL points leader, continued his tear with three assists.
Having that two-headed monster of Malkin and Crosby gives the Pens the nuclear option they need against Detroit. Although the game was far from perfect, Bylsma at least got the ‘W’ and his team banked some confidence. You can safely assume this chess match will continue in Game 4 and beyond.
From the road in Pittsburgh, host Ken Campbell and Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review discuss... Detroit’s struggles on the penalty kill… Fatigue affecting level of play… And Pittsburgh’s support players stepping up.
THN.com's Playoff Blogs, featuring analysis and opinion on the action from the night before, with insight on what happened and what it all means going forward, will appear daily throughout the NHL playoffs. Read more entries HERE.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Thursdays.
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