Momentum in professional hockey can be a funny thing. At times it flip-flops as often as teams rush up and down the ice, and at other times it can seem impossible to wrestle from a dominant opponent.
In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Detroit grabbed momentum and carried it all the way through the end of Game 2 with two shutout victories. The Wings had all of the momentum going into Pittsburgh.
When a team has momentum, the bounces all seem to go their way, and when they don't, they can't buy a break. In the conference finals, the Penguins scored a number of deflected goals. Against the Red Wings, those tips, deflections and pucks in the crease were not finding their way onto their sticks or into the net. For the Penguins, changing momentum when everything was going against them was going to be very difficult.
The first 10 minutes of Game 3 again saw the Wings carry the play. Then, momentum flipped the Pens' way. They picked up the offensive pressure, and finally broke through with a goal. As Ryan Whitney mentioned in his postgame interview, the energy of the home crowd aided the Penguins in getting ahead.
The momentum, however, was far from staying home with the Pens. The Red Wings dominated the third period and repeatedly pressured the Penguins defense and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
. As they continued to pressure, the Wings' Kirk Maltby laid out a huge hit in the offensive end. Everything was going Detroit's way. It seemed only a matter of time before they would tie the game. Then, one of the underrated plays of the game occurred. Immediately after Maltby's hit, the puck went down to the other end, where Gary Roberts nailed defenseman Andreas Lilja, leading to a turnover and eventually to Adam Hall's goal off Chris Osgood's back.
Impressively, and immediately after the goal, the Wings recaptured the momentum and pressured the Pens. They got within one again, but Pittsburgh held on to win Game 3 and to break the veil of invincibility surrounding the Wings.
Momentum is a fuzzy concept that is hard to define, but you know when you have it. It's a feeling that both teams and spectators can sense. Momentum is an emotional, physical surge that brings on a wave of energy that feeds upon itself. When teams have momentum they are confident and optimistic; they believe things are going to go their way.
When momentum is going against you it can be very difficult to turn it around. What did Pittsburgh do to wrestle momentum away from Detroit?
A team must first compete on even ground. Detroit thoroughly out-played, out-shot, and out-checked the Pens in Games 1 and 2 at Joe Louis Arena. In Game 3, the Pens found a way to possess the puck moving through the neutral zone with speed and spend more time deep in the Wings' zone.
A second way the Pens changed momentum was to make something big happen. A big open ice hit, a timely goal or save, a lucky bounce will get the crowd going and build a feeling of confidence and energy.
Roberts' game-changing hit in the third led to the game-winning goal. Hall's goal was a lucky bounce – maybe momentum was on the Pens' side. The Pens started to get the bounces, including Tomas Holmstrom hitting the post late in the third.
Third, the Pens needed to play with great energy. Detroit makes this a difficult proposition. Their puck-possession, methodical style forces the opposition out of its natural flow. To capture momentum from Detroit, Pittsburgh got its feet moving and built up speed in the neutral zone. The Pens played with the passion and grit needed to change the direction of the series.
Finally, the Penguins changed momentum by putting their stars out on the ice. Sidney Crosby
and Marian Hossa played over 19 minutes and were difference makers.
Looking to Game 4, many coaches will tell you that momentum in the NHL only lasts for a game. A team has to regain momentum in the next game. Capturing momentum means carrying the play, but most importantly it means scoring first. A team can be up in a series, but if their opposition can get on the board first it can create the seeds of doubt that open the window of opportunity.
For the Penguins to even the series and retain the momentum from Game 3 they will have to be opportunistic. They must start Game 4 with great passion, intensity and energy, making the big hits and the disciplined plays. If the Penguins continue to play with belief and passion maybe they can hold on to momentum long enough to even the series.
Author: Dr. Larry Lauer | NHL.com Correspondent