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Game 4: It's coaches' time to shine

Thursday, 06.04.2009 / 2:02 PM / 2009 Stanley Cup Final: Detroit vs. Pittsburgh

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- It's time for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, which means there has been more than enough time for coaches Mike Babcock and Dan Bylsma to check and recheck the tapes they've seen and make changes to the original game plan they had set up for this matchup between two high-powered offenses.

It’s an interesting coaching matchup, but one that has similarities since Bylsma was a protégé of Babcock's as a player when Mike was coaching in the Anaheim Ducks organization. Plus, Bylsma is in his first season as a coach -- first at Wilkes-Barre, the Pens' AHL affiliate, and now in Pittsburgh after replacing Michel Therrien in February.

This is the time of the year when coaches make their money and can make a difference in a series.

Examples of potential change for Game 4: The Penguins, perhaps were taking a cue from Bill Guerin's front-of-the net presence on Sergei Gonchar's game-winning power-play goal in the third period of Game 3, worked long and hard at practice Thursday on having their forwards work hard on give-and-go plays down low -- with the emphasis on the deep down-low player going to the net to provide a screen or make a tip.

Bylsma obviously expects Detroit to crash the net hard in Game 4, because he had another drill in which the Penguins lined up four players in front of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. There was plenty of traffic and lots of screens, all designed to get Fleury used to having his vision screened even more -- and work through it.

The Red Wings, on the other hand, practiced the last two days on taking hard shots from down low, firing high, low, whatever, directly in front of the helpless backup goaltenders for Detroit -- almost like they were trying to drive the puck through the net and not just over the goal line. Also, there was countless faceoff practice. Countless.

The Wings held a huge faceoff advantage in Game 1, winning 39 and losing only 16 draws. In Game 2, the Penguins won the faceoff circle battle 27-24. And in Game 3, Detroit won but only by a 24-23 margin.

One of the points of contention in Game 3 was a faceoff loss that led to Gonchar's winning goal. Babcock said putting Kris Draper in the lineup and perhaps getting Pavel Datsyuk back should help Detroit in the faceoff circle big time.

"Faceoffs will be the key," Babcock said Thursday morning -- a key to penalty killing and a key to helping Detroit's puck possession game in keeping the puck away from the skillful Penguins.

Personnel-wise, Bylsma also said his team was prepared to play the game, figuring that Datsyuk would be in Game 4 -- for the first time since injuring his foot in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final against Chicago.

Babcock said he wanted Datsyuk in the lineup, but it will be up to Datsyuk and the team doctors -- making it a game-time decision once again.

Said Babcock, "We needed him the night we lost him against Chicago. And I think we’ve needed him every game since."

87 vs. 40 and 71 vs. 13 -- The most-watched matchup thus far in the series has been the way Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg (No. 40) shut out Sidney Crosby (No. 87) in the first two games and held him to a lone assist in Game 3, that coming while Zetterberg was playing in a man-disadvantage situation.

Now, we'll likely have Datsyuk (No. 13) enter the fray and use his defensive skills to attempt to slow down fellow countryman Evgeni Malkin (No. 71), who has five points in the first three games, including a three-assist effort in Game 3, and leads all playoff performers with 33 points.

Listen to Crosby talk about the problems he's had facing Zetterberg: "When I play against him, I expect to be tightly checked. But I also realize when I go back to my own end, I have to make sure I'm responsible, too. So that's not always the case with every guy you play in that type of role. But with him, you know, that's the way it is. So it's a challenge. It's a matchup, but these are the battles that you have to find ways to win."

And now the Datsyuk effect. After winning the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the game a year ago, Datsyuk will be key in trying to shut down Malkin now.

"He's a great player, and he'll bring a lot of offense to their club," Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "Also, he's working hard on defense, so I'm sure he's going to give them a boost of energy. He's going to help them."

The Malkin factor -- We've talked a lot about the points Malkin has had in the playoffs this year and that he's the first player to get 30 points in the playoffs since Colorado's Joe Sakic had 34 in 1996.

For the record, with at least two games remaining, here's the top single-season playoff scoring totals:

Wayne Gretzky: 47 in 1985
Mario Lemieux: 44 in 1991
Gretzky: 43 in 1988
Gretzky: 40 in 1993

No warning before the whistle -- The crackdown on interference seemed to be relaxed a little in the first two games according to players from both teams. Actually Pittsburgh players complained that they were getting more calls against them and wondered why.

The argument went the other way when Detroit defenseman Jonathan Ericsson was whistled for interfering with Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke nine minutes into the third period of Game 3. Gonchar scored on the resulting power play to break a 2-2 tie en route to a 4-2 victory.

"I was a little surprised to see that call, considering the way they'd been calling things," Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said.

Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup Final GearThe third dimension -- Pittsburgh has outshot Detroit 34-14 in the third period of the first three games of the Final. Most agreed that the Pens played a tired Detroit team in the third period of Game 3, something the day off and the energy of Datsyuk and Draper could help alleviate.

"He's really good on the 50-50 pucks and a great faceoff guy," Zetterberg said of Datsyuk. "He works really hard at both ends of the ice. So, if he is ready, it will be very good for us."

It's Hossa Time -- Forget the fact that Marian Hossa is facing his former Pittsburgh team in Game 4 Thursday night. Forget it, now.

A lot is being made in Pens country that Hossa had 12 goals and 14 assists in 20 games last year when he was playing against the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final -- and that this year he has only 6 goals and 8 assists, after choosing Detroit over Pittsburgh as a free agent last July.

But let's not forget that he's had two goals in each Game 4 up to this point -- against Columbus in the first round, Anaheim in Round 2 and Chicago in the Western Conference Finals. And, oh yes, there's that report that the Wings have tentatively signed Hossa to a new seven-year contract -- one that Detroit management quickly denied before Game 3.

Enough incentive for Hossa?

Stay tuned.

Paying the price -- The life of an NHL coach has its good points, like making the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row. But it also has its drawbacks from a personal standpoint.

Detroit's Mike Babcock has the Red Wings two wins away from repeating as Stanley Cup champs. But as he noted during his news conference Thursday morning, there's a price to be paid for that success.

"I'm missing my son's graduation today," the 46-year-old coach and father of three said. "I missed my daughter's birthday on Tuesday. So (I'm) probably not running for Father of the Year, but other than that, everything's good."

-- John Kreiser




Quote of the Day

He's able to play now, we just want to see other guys. We know what he can do.

— Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on not rushing Steven Stamkos onto the ice