PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins' dressing room at Mellon Arena is a tidy little space, about the size of a big bedroom. No one will ever refer to it as a locker room, because it doesn't have lockers, and the normal accouterments of professional-athlete luxury don't exist there because they can't fit, and they'd probably be a fire hazard anyway.
It's the perfect sanctuary to sit and reflect, and that's exactly what the Penguins did following the second period of the Stanley Cup Finals' Game 3 on Tuesday night. They had finished 20 minutes of brutal hockey: lots of giveaway, few shot opportunities and brownout-level energy. And to have escaped from it still tied with Detroit represented something of a reprieve, not just from the Red Wings' series-long dominance but from their own malaise.
Dan Bylsma hustled his players into the room. He had 18 minutes to save their season. Already he had done it twice, the first time Feb. 16 when he took over as Pittsburgh's coach with 25 games left, the next in the second round of the playoffs when the Penguins stormed back to beat Washington after facing the same two-games-to-none deficit they did Tuesday against the Red Wings.
Bylsma kept it short. Relax, he said. Bear down, he said. And that was it. Anything more … it just wouldn't be his style. Bylsma let it stew that a poor third period would be the end of Pittsburgh's season and allowed urgency to create the magic it does with the Penguins.
By the final horn, when the scoreboard read Pittsburgh 4, Detroit 2, it was evident that the Penguins perform their best when facing the worst. What looked like a second consecutive futile coup on the Red Wings' dynasty turned into – for one night, at least – a reminder that the Penguins are hyper-talented, too, and that dreams of a sweep were ill-conceived.
"As much as we weren't happy with the way we played in the second, we knew we still had our chance in the third and wanted to make the most of it," Penguins star Sidney Crosby(notes) said. "It wasn't a matter of them changing anything. They stuck with their game in the second, and we got away from ours. So we just needed to get our game back."
It wasn't just the second period. The Penguins' game went AWOL in the series' first eight periods. Detroit imposes itself in an artistic manner: whereas brute force can be the preferred method in hockey, the Red Wings do so with the silent grace of a hit man. You're dead and you don't even know it.
The Penguins' own mortality snapped them to. This was their home ice. And their crowd. And their time. They've got a saying in the Penguins' dressing room: It's always about the next shift. Not Tuesday. It was about the current shift, because there might not be a next shift worth anything with a 3-0 deficit.
Immediately, the energy level surged. The Penguins raced around the ice. They won loose pucks. They got mean. Two minutes into the period, Matt Cooke(notes), the nuisance of a winger, gave Detroit goalie Chris Osgood(notes) a friendly tap on the upper chest – with his skate.
With the score still 2-2 midway through the period, Cooke drew an interference penalty on rookie defenseman Jonathan Ericsson(notes). Already the Penguins had scored on Detroit's maligned penalty kill, and they were finally doing everything right, hitting and playing smothering defense and sacrificing their bodies to block shots. All of that built up to this opportunity against a Detroit penalty-killing unit that ranks 14th this postseason.
After 90 seconds of cycling the puck with little to show, the Penguins worked it to the left point, where Sergei Gonchar(notes) waited. The 35-year-old defenseman dislocated his shoulder in the preseason and didn't return until Bylsma's first game. The Penguins moved up six places in the Eastern Conference standings upon his arrival, and before Game 3 Crosby and Talbot marveled at each other about Gonchar's tranquility and composure.
He wound up and unleashed a slap shot. Crosby and Bill Guerin(notes) screened Osgood. When the net rippled, the arena let forth a thunderclap. The Red Wings could keep surrounding Crosby in triplicate, and they could send so many red jerseys near goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's(notes) crease that it looked like a blood clot come to life. They'd do so down 3-2.
It stayed that way until they pulled Osgood and almost immediately got hit with an empty netter from Talbot, his second goal of the game. The Penguins would live to see the Joe Louis Arena again, and before that, they would get one more game at the Igloo on Thursday.
"It's a great feeling to be back in the series," said Fleury, and it took just one period to get them there. As much as the Penguins wanted to believe those final 20 minutes weren't the season's make-or-break moment – "To a certain point, no," center Jordan Staal(notes) said – they were, and perhaps Pittsburgh accomplished more than just salvaging its year. Identity is forged in such moments, and the Penguins did something few others could: imposed themselves on Detroit.
"To a certain point, yes, it was the season," Staal admitted. "It was a big period for us. It's not easy coming back from 3-0, and we understood that."
So the Penguins sat in their room of meditation during that long intermission and thought. About their teammates and their season and themselves. And with nary a word exchanged, they came to a consensus.
Not here. Not now. It just wouldn't be their style.