DETROIT – Who needs star power when bitter rivals are squaring off like it's Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final instead of Game 73 of the regular season?
Despite no Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk or Johan Franzen, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings put on quite a show in nationally-televised see-saw battle the Penguins eventually won 5-4 in a shootout on Monday night at Joe Louis Arena.
Pittsburgh's James Neal scored the lone goal in the shootout to end it, beating Red Wings backup goalie Joey MacDonald, but it's what transpired in the preceding 65 minutes that people will be talking about on Tuesday.
After building a 4-0 lead more than halfway through the second period, the Penguins (42-23-8) watched it disappear with four straight Detroit goals to tie it midway through the third – with three of the goals coming in the first half of the final period.
Next came overtime and the shootout, which had to keep the TV audience on the edge of their seats as the arena itself rocked from excited fans of both teams.
"Yeah, well, it was a Versus game so we tried to make it interesting," joked Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis, who led Pittsburgh with a pair of goals and an assist for a three-point night. "It's all about ratings I guess, huh? No, they're a good hockey team. They kept coming. At the same time, you don't want to let a team creep back like they did in the third."
Especially the Red Wings (43-21-9), who've become the sworn enemy of the Penguins – and vice-versa – after the two won back-to-back Stanley Cups while facing each other in 2008 and 2009.
"It's not only (getting the win), but it's the team we're playing and the previous battles the Penguins have had with Detroit," said Neal, who Pittsburgh traded Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars to acquire in February. "It makes it that much better. We want to play this team tough each time we play them. No matter how much they battled back, we still found a way to win. It's a good feeling."
It didn't feel so good not too long before he said that, after Mike Modano's rocket from the right circle capped a Detroit power play and tied it 4-4 with 9:33 left in regulation. The building was already revved up after back-to-back goals by Valtteri Filppula and Danny Cleary started the third for the Red Wings – bringing them within 4-3 with half the period left.
After Modano's shot hit Pittsburgh backup goalie Brent Johnson in the chest protector and skipped over his shoulder into the top shelf of the net, Joe Louis Arena erupted. It stayed that way all the way until Neal finally won it for the Penguins.
It was Modano's first goal in 12 games since returning from a severed wrist tendon that kept him out most of the season, but he was more pleased to see the fight in his team after going down by four goals.
"We've had a number of those this year that you kind of watch and you kind of keep coming back and keep making plays and the team just kind of hangs in there," Modano said. "It's a real sign of this team's consistency and the pride they have. It's great to be a part of. We felt if we got it to two, there was a good opportunity to get back in it."
Coming all the way back created one of the loudest scenes in the building all season and even impressed Johnson – the grandson of Red Wings legend Sid Abel who spent many nights at Joe Louis Arena as a youngster.
"The barn was maybe one of the loudest I've ever heard after they got that fourth goal," Johnson said. "The decibel level was definitely high in here. Through the (1980s) I came here with my grandpa every game."
Johnson pulled it together after allowing the tying goal and made a great sprawling save on Darren Helm with 3:03 left in regulation to thwart a 2-on-1 rush and keep it tied. In the shootout, he made saves on Todd Bertuzzi, Modano and Cleary – who broke his stick on his attempt.
Against Modano, Johnson guessed correctly and deftly snared a wrist shot with the trapper. After Neal scored, it was sweet retribution for allowing the Red Wings' second goal to Filppula – who beat Johnson by just sneaking one over the goal line from near the blue paint.
"I haven't played here in a long time, but playing in front of family and friends it's definitely fantastic," Johnson said. "Getting a win underneath my grandfather's jersey is one great thing."
Aside from Dupuis' big night, the Penguins got two-point efforts from Jordan Staal (2 assists) and Chris Kunitz (1 goal, 1 assist).
Already without Crosby, Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Mike Comrie and now Matt Cooke – who was suspended Monday for the rest of the regular season and first round of the playoffs – the Penguins are finding ways to keep things rolling in the right direction.
"You can call it whatever you want, secondary scoring or (whatever)," Dupuis said. "Right now it pretty much has to be the first. Guys have to score to win games."
He took the lead himself as Pittsburgh built the lead, putting a backhand from the left circle past Howard in the first period and then adding a shorthanded marker to make it 3-0 in the second. Tyler Kennedy also scored in the second at even strength, which made it 4-0 and chased Detroit starting goalie Jimmy Howard in favor of MacDonald (10 saves).
That's where the good times for Pittsburgh came to an abrupt halt, with the Red Wings beginning their comeback on a Zetterberg backhand from the left circle with 2:19 left in the second.
Filppula (1 goal, 1 assist), Nicklas Lidstrom (2 assists), Brad Stuart (2 assists) and Cleary (1 goal, 1 assist) led the way offensive for the Red Wings – who will now face the Western Conference leading Vancouver Canucks here on Wednesday. They'll likely need a more consistent effort for the entire game to hang with the high-powered Canucks – who are leading the West with 103 points.
"It would definitely help to have (Datsyuk, Franzen and Jiri Hudler)," Zetterberg said. "But we got other guys who can score, too. At the end of the second and the third, if we play like that and really go after the other team, we're a tough team to beat."