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And the fourth shall make you first

by Brian Compton

Kirk Maltby and the Detroit Red Wings are trying their best to eliminate all possible distractions and treat Monday night's potential Stanley Cup Final clincher as just another game. 
DETROIT -- The fourth one is always the hardest.

That's the saying from most players and coaches in this sport when it comes to series-clinching victories, and the mood was no different at Joe Louis Arena Sunday afternoon.

With a chance to win their fourth Stanley Cup in 11 seasons Monday night, the Detroit Red Wings seemed awfully calm despite what will be at stake when the puck drops.

Players met the media on Sunday in between phone calls and text messages from just about everybody they've ever come in contact with. While some were simply offering good luck, most were in search of what will certainly be one hot ticket.

"We're just trying to focus for the game," said Detroit forward Tomas Holmstrom, who will be back in the lineup tomorrow after missing Saturday's 2-1 win at Pittsburgh due to a hamstring injury. "You can't really look much further. Friends are calling and everybody's calling. It's a freak show. You have to focus on the task at hand, and that's it. No more."

Some players will do their very best to stick to their normal routine. Brett Lebda said he was turning his phone off at 6 o'clock. Kirk Maltby took part in Sunday's optional skate and then spoke candidly with reporters like he always does.

Still, the task of remaining focused for Monday's game (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio) against the desperate Penguins won't exactly be easy.

"There's always friends and family that are looking for tickets," Maltby said. "You definitely just want to get all the distractions out of the way. First and foremost, we've just got to be focused. We're just trying to get another win."

The Red Wings' ability to become the first road team to win in Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Playoffs Saturday night is the reason why they're in this position now. Even without Holmstrom in the lineup, Detroit found a way to overcome an early power-play goal by Marian Hossa and a situation in the third period that forced them to play down two men for 86 seconds.

Now comes the really hard part -- finding a way to put these Penguins away for good. With their season on the line for the first time (Pittsburgh never even trailed in a series until it lost Game 1 in Detroit), the Penguins will likely attempt to force the Red Wings to weather an early storm and score their first goal at Joe Louis Arena in this series. Pittsburgh was outscored 7-0 in Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final in Detroit.

"The other team's back is against the wall," Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski said. "You have to come out and match that and better that. It's a situation where you can't look beyond tomorrow. You have to go out there and play the best 60 minutes you've played all year."

While Detroit would like nothing more than to duplicate its success from Games 1 and 2 tomorrow night, coach Mike Babcock is more focused on making sure his team is ready to play. Clearly, the Red Wings are going out of their way to treat tomorrow night like any other game.

"We try to play the same, and with a few nuances every single night," Babcock said. "We have a simple blueprint or foundation we go to, but that's not what makes you win. What makes you win is the will and the determination of great players who want to be successful.

"We have to get that to come to the forefront tomorrow night.  We have to control our anxiety level or our activation level and make sure we're at an optimal point. We think we have enough experience and enough young guys that we'll have that opportunity."
Babcock didn't seem to buy into the theory that the fourth game of a series is always the most difficult. The Red Wings coach said he tries to approach every game the same way, and claims that won't change tomorrow.

"I believe that the game you're playing is the hardest to win," Babcock said. "I believe that in Game 1 of the regular season, I believe that in Game 82 of the regular season and right through. Tomorrow will be no different.

"I've said this all along -- if you live in the present, the most important thing you can be doing is doing this right now, because you're here, so you might as well do it now."

The Red Wings had the same mindset when they held a 3-1 series lead on the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final, but things didn't go as planned. Detroit dropped a 2-1 decision in Game 5 and was forced to go back to Dallas, where they clinched the series with a convincing 4-1 win in Game 6.

"I think in the Dallas series we came out and we were nervous," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "We were just sitting around waiting for them to come at us. We can't do that. I mean, it's the Stanley Cup Final. You have to focus on what you need to do for 60 minutes. If you come out there and start playing nervous, they're going to come after you."

Maltby was confident on Sunday that he and his teammates will draw on past experiences as they have a chance to win a championship in front of their hometown fans on Monday night.

"We allowed (Dallas) to control the game and ran out of time," Maltby said. "It's important that we get off to a better start in this Game 5 and give ourselves a chance to win right from the drop of the puck."

But it won't be easy -- not with gifted players such as Sidney Crosby, Marian Hossa and Evgeni Malkin on the other side of the ice.

"They're going to be desperate and they're going to want to come out and play their best game of the series," Maltby said of the Pens. "We know they're not going to roll over. If anything, we've learned our lesson against Dallas. We can't allow them to dictate the play. Things are going to happen during the course of the game that aren't going to go our way, but we have to make sure we adjust and stay composed."

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