Pittsburgh Penguins were missing some valuable star power; the Detroit Red Wings had theirs intact. In a game that seemed suited more for May than December for most of 60 minutes, that made all the difference during the decisive third period.
Pavel Datsyuk tied it late in a second period that the Penguins had controlled until then, then set up Johan Franzen's go-ahead power-play goal in the third and the Red Wings went on to beat the Sidney Crosby-less Penguins 4-1 on Tuesday night.
With goalie Jimmy Howard making 25 saves to deny Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury his 200th career victory, Detroit won for the 10th time in 12 games and 14th in its last 18. The Penguins dropped their third in four games, only the second time all season they have had such a stretch, and their second straight at home.
A game that couldn't have started much better for the Penguins couldn't have ended much worse as Detroit pulled away with three goals in the third. Danny Cleary helped kill off a pair of power plays in the third as Pittsburgh went 0-for-4 with the man advantage, then scored twice in the final 4 1/2 minutes -- the second one into an empty net.
"They're a good team even without Sid, they're very deep and well-coached and they're fun to play against, and tonight was a good one for our team," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said after his team's third consecutive victory. "I thought he (Datsyuk) was dominant down the stretch, and that's what he tends to do in the bigger moments."
That's what stars do.
Evgeni Malkin, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner when the Penguins outlasted the Red Wings in a seven-game Stanley Cup Final in 2009, gave Pittsburgh the initial lead with only five seconds remaining in the first period.
But after Malkin came within an inch or two of making it 2-0 early in the second period, the Penguins couldn't get to Howard again as the Red Wings goalie improved to an NHL-best 18-6-1. Howard allowed two goals or fewer for the ninth time in 11 games, a stretch in which he is 10-1-0.
That's what stars do.
"We talk about that amongst our team all year long -- it's always going to come down to one or two plays," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who often sees Crosby make such plays when he is healthy. "How we execute and the details are important, and it came down to one or two details the other way."
And one or two more stars.
Crosby sat out his third in a row with concussion-like symptoms and, again, his return remains uncertain. He has missed all but eight of Pittsburgh's 31 games and 64 of the last 72; Pittsburgh is 12-8-3 without him this season and 35-21-8 during the last two seasons.
With the score tied at 1-1, Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen was called for holding at 4:51 of the third and Detroit needed only 24 seconds to take advantage.
Datsyuk intercepted Matt Cooke's attempted clearing pass from along the goal line and fed a backhand pass to Franzen in the left circle for a hard wrist shot that sailed over Fleury's right shoulder for his 14th goal.
Franzen, Datsyuk … hmm, haven't the Penguins met up with these guys before?
With Cleary contributing his sixth and seventh goals, the Red Wings -- playing Pittsburgh for the only time this season -- rallied to win for the seventh time in 14 road games.
To accomplish it, they withstood an exceptional game from Malkin, who sat out the morning skate for undisclosed reasons. Center Jordan Staal (lower-body injury) also played after missing the practice and a 6-3 victory Saturday over the New York Islanders.
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik blocked Niklas Kronwall's shot in the closing seconds of the first period, allowing James Neal to bank a perfectly placed pass off the side boards to Malkin in the neutral zone and start a 2-on-1 rush with Chris Kunitz. Malkin never hesitated before snapping off a hard wrist shot from the right dot that cleanly beat Howard inside the far post for his 11th goal.
"Every single time he touched the puck, it seemed like something was happening," Howard said. "He's one of the best players in the world for a reason."
Malkin nearly got another early in the second period, but his wrist shot from the right circle banked off Howard and struck the right post -- but, ever so close to crossing the goal line, refused to go in. Malkin also hit a post early in the third.
"That changes the game a little bit, the complexion," Bylsma said. "We had a few we didn't capitalize on."
Instead, the Red Wings – who lost both games in the season series a year ago – tied it late in the second with the help of a Penguins turnover in their own zone.
Fleury played the puck behind the net and slipped a short pass to Niskanen, but Todd Bertuzzi drove him off the puck and threw a pass to Datsyuk in the slot. Datsyuk kicked it from his forehand to his backhander before elevating the puck past Fleury on one of only 13 Red Wings shots in the first two periods. They had 11 in the third.
"It was a great momentum boost for us. They were sort of carrying the play there in the second period and that was just a great shot by Pavel," Howard said.
After Franzen put Detroit ahead to stay, Cleary took former Penguins forward Chris Conner's lead pass to beat Fleury at 15:36. Cleary added an empty-net goal with six seconds remaining.
The matchup between the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup finalists mostly followed a playoff-like script, with tight checking, a joint emphasis on regaining the puck as soon as it was lost and few end-to-end rushes.
"They were very patient and both teams didn't make many mistakes," Niskanen said. "We just couldn't get a dirty goal to go in."
Even with Staal and Malkin playing, the Penguins were depleted as defensemen Kris Letang and Zbynek Michalek (concussions) remained out. With Richard Park recovering from a broken foot, the Penguins again utilized right wing Pascal Dupuis as a center, a position he had never played until Saturday.