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Penguins

Puck Talk with Popchock: Turning Point?

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Jordan Staal, Nate Thompson

Jordan Staal and the Lightning’s Nate Thompson go after a loose puck during Game 2 at CONSOL Energy Center Friday. (Photo credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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By Matt Popchock

Well, you know what they say, Game 2 can often be the pivotal one in a playoff series.

Or is it Game 3?

No, no, wait…it’s definitely Game 5…right?

Oh, no, wait…it’s four.  No, no, three.  Definitely three.  Not four.  Pretty sure.

But seriously, it is three…isn’t it?

That’s what 93.7 The Fan “Penalty Box” host Tom Grimm would have you believe if you listened to his show Saturday afternoon following our spring football coverage.  Tom and I often jump to the same conclusions, but I’m not willing to make this leap just yet.

The Tampa Bay Lightning seized momentum in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series by evening the score with the Penguins at CONSOL Energy Center Friday night with as complete an effort as they’ve put forth against this team in six overall meetings.  History suggests the Penguins can retrieve that momentum anytime, anywhere, even if it doesn’t happen Monday.

Game 3 was going to be a big one for the Lightning regardless of Friday’s result.  The Penguins’ poor play in Game 2 makes it even bigger.  I’m sure at one time or another we’ve read in one of the two major newspapers or heard from some talking head on cable TV the statistical importance of winning at St. Pete Times Forum tonight, just as we heard about the statistical importance of Friday’s fiasco.

If there’s one lesson we learn from watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s how meaningless those stats can be sometimes.

Since 2008 the Pens have emerged victorious in nine of ten Game 3′s.  The lone exception was the third game of the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the hated Flyers, a game in which the Pens looked about as flat as they did Friday against Tampa.  Although, starting with that Game 3, Philly seemed to carry the play in the series, the actual turning point proved to be the second period of Game 6, when Max Talbot put a fist to the head of Daniel Carcillo, then put a finger to his own lips in front of about twenty-thousand Cro-Magnons at the Wachovia Center.

Sorry, folks, but I don’t have time to look up the odds of a team winning a deciding Game 6 on the road after falling behind by three goals, nor the odds of a guy being dumb enough to get into a fight with his team up by three.  However, I’ll hazard the guess that both are pretty slim.

During that same Cup run, the Penguins won Game 3 of the Eastern semis against Washington after falling behind 2-0, and after two more hard-fought victories, it certainly looked like Kris Letang’s pinball goal in overtime at Mellon Arena was the turning point of that series.  But after being stunned in another overtime contest by the visiting Caps, the Pens needed one last big save from Marc-Andre Fleury on Alex Ovechkin to seize control of Game 7 and eventually whip the home team.

After two frustrating losses in the Stanley Cup Final at Joe Louis Arena, the Penguins rebounded and rewrote the script from the previous season with two emotional victories at the Igloo, and the Pens seemed to be in the driver’s seat, especially after the way Game 4 ended.  But the Wings reversed the karma by blowing their doors off with a 5-0 rout at The Joe.

At the time, it would have been painfully easy for even the most loyal Penguin fan to say the series was over with that loss, and at least a couple of the so-called experts pitched tents in that camp.  But with maybe the most unforgettable text message in team history (if there is such a thing), Mario Lemieux rightfully reminded his boys that, in the playoffs, every game is its own animal, and the Pens took home Lord Stanley with two masterful defensive performances, a sharp contrast to Game 5.

Last year the Penguins seemed to take control of their first-round matchup with Ottawa with a Game 4 victory just as impressive as their performance at Scotiabank Place in Game 3.  Suddenly, though, seeds of doubt were planted with a triple-OT loss at home in Game 5, and a 3-0 deficit in Game 6.  It took a serious case of deja vu that included heroic goals by Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis to steal that game and take the series.

I need not remind you what happened a couple weeks later, but I will anyway, because it bears repeating.  The Pens went to Bell Centre for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Canadiens after a disappointing effort in Game 2.  A timely power-play goal–now there’s a novel concept–by Evgeni Malkin, coupled with Flower’s brilliance in net gave the Penguins a shutout victory.  That, however, would be the high-water mark for Fleury, who was later pulled in an embarrassing end to what became a seven-game seesaw battle.

It may be cliche to say momentum is only as good as the Penguins’–or the Lightning’s–next game, but cliches are usually cliches for a reason: because they’re true.

History paints a very clear picture of the emotional roller-coaster that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Game 7′s not withstanding, you can’t get too caught up in the outcome of one playoff contest, whether it’s last Wednesday’s, last Friday’s, or tonight’s, because the complexion of a series can change on a dime in 48 hours, sometimes more, sometimes less.

Having said that, why am I optimistic about Game 3?

Number one, after seeing the Pens win the second-most regular season games in the NHL with their two best players missing half the campaign, it seems like almost anything is possible with this obviously resilient group.

Number two, it’s hard to imagine them playing much worse than they did Friday.  Marc-Andre Fleury may not be a Vezina Trophy winner, but by and large, he has played like one lately, and judging by the overall play of the blue-liners in front of him, that early stumble in Game 2 was an anomaly.

Number three, as long as the Pens do indeed return to their normal brand of defensive zone responsibility, their offense will likely feed off the momentum of that defense, just like it did in Game 1, and just like it has for much of the season.

Nevertheless, whether the Penguins are able to recapture the series lead and momentum in Game 3 or not, we won’t truly know if it will be the turning point until this series has a winner.

As Dan Bylsma is fond of saying, it’s a race to four.  Right now, each team has won one.

Beginning shortly after 7:30 tonight, the race is on.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)

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