Once upon a time, Mario Lemieux would single-handedly turn around hockey games by sheer force of will.
The Penguins would have a rough 1st period, fall behind by 2 or 3 goals, and shamble around for the first 5:00 or so of the 2nd, just for good measure. Then Mario would get disgusted and say to himself, “Yes, I do have to carry the entire team tonight, so I better get started.”
And the Pens would then reel off 4 straight goals, and 66 would have a hand in all of them, and a 3-0 deficit would end up a 5-3 win. (Guess who got the empty netter?)
It was like Mario had a secret button hidden somewhere on the bench. One of those big red industrial emergency stop buttons with a Lucite molly guard marked “FUCK IT, WE’RE WINNING THIS GAME!”
Now I’m picturing Jordan Staal in last night’s Pens/Red Wings game. It’s the 3rd period, he’s just finished a shift, he’s back on the bench, and he has to adjust a shin guard. He leans over, and something catches his eye. There, mounted under the top sill of the dasher, is that red button. The inscription on the plastic cover tempts him. He wonders, “Is that hooked up to us or the Wings? Is this a trick? Can Coach see me? Nah, he’s giving Hasenfratz the stink eye over that interference call on Sid… It’s already 5-2, what’s the worst that could happen?”
One hat trick and a Grand Theft Datsyuk later, he’s partying with Ruslan Fedotenko. The Penguins have extracted a small measure of revenge on the Red Wings. The Detroit faithful are walking away frustrated by the night, and maybe a little worried about a real rematch in this year’s Finals.
The last three meetings between these clubs ended with two overtime wins for the Pens after game tying goals at the death and one near miss. When the Wings play perfect hockey for 60 minutes, they’ve proven that they can beat the Penguins. But the split second they show a weak spot in their defenses, the Pens attack it, break through it, and then it’s the Wings hanging on for dear life.
Last year, the Pens had a breakthrough game in November against the Ottawa Senators, defending Eastern Conference champions and off to a torrid start. From that day forward, they made strong, steady progress toward a division title, and laid waste to the Eastern Conference side of the playoff bracket. Could this be another November Breakthrough? Does this mean that the Penguins are finding that next level that will lead them to the promised land?
We may not need the button again this year.