PITTSBURGH (AP) -Finally, the moment the Pittsburgh Penguins waited for throughout the Stanley Cup finals. Evgeni Malkin, one of the NHL's best offensive players during the season, scored an important goal.
Too late, as it turned out. Too late to save the game, too late to save the series.
Malkin gave the Penguins a short-lived lift in their series-ending 3-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in Game 6 on Wednesday night, ending a finals-long shutout by scoring on a power play late in the second period. That made it 2-1 and, for the first time since the opening minutes, it appeared the Penguins had a chance to win and force a decisive Game 7.
They should have known better. Red Wings stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski wouldn't let it happen, clamping down on the Penguins' young offensive stars to claim their fourth Stanley Cup in 11 seasons.
The Penguins, seemingly the NHL's team of the future, now must wait for their first Cup since the Mario Lemieux days. As usual, a good defense beat a good offense, and these Penguins weren't ready yet to beat a team as deep, skilled and committed to defense as the Red Wings are.
Close, they were. But not close enough.
"I'm almost speechless. It's tough. We were that close," coach Michel Therrien said. "This is a group that gave all they got. They deserve a lot of respect. We got beat by a quality team."
Before Malkin scored, Mellon Arena grew increasingly silent as the Red Wings opened a 2-0 lead and kept Pittsburgh's stars in check. The fatigued Penguins also appeared to have trouble matching the intensity and desperation they had while coming back to win 3-2 in triple overtime in Game 5, tying it on Max Talbot's goal with only 35 seconds remaining in regulation.
The crowd of 17,132 jammed into sagging Mellon Arena could sense what might happen when the Penguins, for the second time in as many home games, couldn't convert a lengthy 5-on-3 advantage - just as they couldn't in losing the pivotal Game 4 by 2-1 on Saturday night.
This one lasted 1:33 midway through the first period with Detroit up 1-0. While the Penguins had three shots, Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood wasn't especially pressured, just as he wasn't in the 5-on-3 in Game 4.
The Red Wings are much older - they dressed seven players who are 35 or over - and it seemed the 20-something Penguins would have an edge with their young legs. They didn't.
"But these young kids became men and learned a lot," defenseman Darryl Sydor said. "New leaders emerged and they have to be proud of their accomplishments."
Only two years ago, the Penguins were the second-worst team in the league, but rebuilt themselves quickly behind the 20-year-old Sidney Crosby, 21-year-old Malkin, 23-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury and 19-year-old Jordan Staal.
"We made big strides the last two years, we're going in the right direction with those young kids," Therrien said. "The future is bright."
The Penguins go as Crosby goes and, especially in the first period, he didn't go at all. He didn't get a shot, was only 1-for-9 on faceoffs and seemed to have Zetterberg in front and Lidstrom in back of him whenever he had the puck. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock changed lines on the fly, making sure some of the NHL's best defenders were on the ice with Crosby whenever possible.
Early in the second, Crosby lost a skate blade and flew into the corner, absorbing a hard hit from Brad Stuart while doing so. Crosby barely made it to the bench and didn't go back out for four-plus minutes, though he did get the second assist on Malkin's goal.
But for much of the game, this wasn't the Crosby who was so energetic, so much a force earlier in the series, especially when he scored twice to give Pittsburgh a 3-2 win in Game 3. It wasn't for lack of ice time - Therrien double-shifted Crosby, Malkin and Marian Hossa on an All-Star line in the third period to try to generate some offense.
There was a sliver of hope when Hossa scored on the power play with 1:27 remaining, and the finish was nearly as frantic as Game 5. This time, Crosby threw a backhander at the net in the fading seconds and Hossa, stationed at the side of the net, barely missed putting in the rebound as Osgood made a desperation save as the final horn sounded.
"When they scored the second one, we knew it was going to be tight to the end," Zetterberg said. "They had a chance, but when I saw the puck behind the net and 0:00 on the clock, I was a pretty happy man."
So close to another miracle finish, Pittsburgh couldn't force a Game 7 in Detroit, nor could it avoid the first Stanley Cup presentation in Mellon Arena since the Penguins first became a franchise in 1967. And it wasn't them lifting it.
"There's not much to say after a game, you know?" Therrien said. "It hurts. So you feel the pain from everyone."