The Penguins' Sidney Crosby and the Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom watch Sergei Gonchar's game-winner go past Chris Osgood. (Jim McIsaac / Getty Images)
One slight grasp, one slight gasp. In a tight Stanley Cup Finals, the Red Wings lost their grip ever so slightly, and it cost them.
You make a mistake, large or small, in this series, there's a decent chance you'll pay. The Wings paid with a penalty in the third period, and now we'll see exactly how much it cost. With a chance to wipe away the Penguins' next-to-last hope, the Wings buckled just a bit, and the result was actually predictable.
The Penguins' 4-2 victory Tuesday night changed the length of this series, although I'm not sure it changed the tenor. The Wings played well on the road but squandered numerous chances, including the big one: They could have seized a 3-0 series lead.
The Penguins kept coming, as everyone knew they would, and finally cashed in. No, it wasn't Sidney Crosby, either. And it wasn't Evgeni Malkin, although he did have three assists.
It was a slapper by defenseman Sergei Gonchar midway through the third period -- after Jonathan Ericsson was called for an interference penalty -- that beat Chris Osgood and broke a 2-2 tie.
And now the Penguins have broken the seal, and this series is 2-1 and unofficially under way. It also happened last year, when the Wings took a 2-0 lead, lost a close Game 3, then gutted out a victory in Game 4.
They'll have to do the same Thursday night, because while the Penguins didn't control much of the play, they were better in the third period.
And when a young team finds life, well, it won't get any easier for the fellas in red.
"I think we played a pretty good game," said Marian Hossa, predictably booed every time he touched the puck. "Obviously they're a highly skilled team, and when they get a power play, they have a chance to score.
"It's two great teams going at each other."
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury played much better, no doubt. For long stretches, the Wings were dangerous, and through two periods, they'd out-shot the Penguins, 26-11.
But trouble came when Ericsson made a casual, ill-advised grab of Matt Cooke in the Wings' zone and the whistle blew, and Pittsburgh's potent power play came on. With these teams, one grab or grasp makes a difference. Mike Babcock would have loved a call in the first period, when replays showed the Penguins played about 20 seconds with an extra skater on the ice, but there wasn't much grumbling after this one.
The Wings had their chances, and they knew it.
"Sometimes the way we do things, we look for fault," Babcock said. "To me, this series is where it should be."
Time for Datsyuk?
The point is, you can't relax, not for a shift or a period, and the Wings are familiar with the consequences. And now I wonder if it's time to give injured MVP finalist Pavel Datysuk, out the entire series because of a foot injury, a chance to go in Game 4. He might not be ready, but I still think he'll be needed.
This has been three straight close games, and the margins for error aren't getting any larger. And while the Wings can find comfort in knowing they've played well without Datsyuk, the Penguins must know it's only a matter of time before Crosby scores.
Just like the Penguins felt they weren't rewarded for their effort in Detroit, the Wings don't get style points for their effort in Pittsburgh. And let's face it -- the Penguins are too skilled to get swept.
The game began as expected, with the Penguins dangerously desperate, then desperately dangerous. They were all over the ice early, and sure enough, Maxime Talbot fired in the opening goal and the Igloo crowd went crazy.
And then? Well, just when you thought the Wings might be staggered, everything calmed down. Henrik Zetterberg, once again emerging as the MVW (Most Valuable Wing), buried a point-blank shot. Barely five minutes later, Johan Franzen slammed in a power-play goal and a rough start suddenly became a 2-1 Detroit lead.
For a while, this was fine execution of the message, verbalized nicely before the game by Babcock.
"When you're ahead, no matter what you say to them, the tendency is to be a little more careful," Babcock said. "We don't want to play the game careful."
You can't be careful but you can't be careless. You have to relax but you really can't relax, not when you have an opponent down.
The Wings didn't necessarily relax, but yes, mistakes did rise. After Dan Cleary took a holding penalty, Penguins defenseman Kris Letang made the Wings pay on the power play, and after a wild first period, the game was 2-2.
The Penguins made their statement, scoring as many goals in one period as they'd scored in two games back in Detroit. The Wings also made theirs -- they were going for the quasi-clincher, caution be darned. They out-shot the Penguins for the first time in the series and kept attacking, and Fleury was finally, legitimately tough.
And finally, legitimately, we have a series as tight as expected.