After a three day layoff the puck will drop tonight on Game Four of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals. Should the Penguins triumph at home again, they will lock the series up at two apiece after being down 2-0. If the Wings can pick up the road victory they'll set themselves up to play for the Cup Monday night at home in Detriot's Joe Louis Arena.
After the one-sided loss of Game One by the Penguins, more than a few were running around calling game two a "must win" game for Pittsburgh. And while I laughed off calling any game two a must win game, after they once again were trounced pretty handily, Game three in Pittsburgh was looking pretty important. But when it came time, the Penguins did what they had to do. They won at home. If any Red Wings fans thought this series was over when the Wings took the first two, and started planning parades or something, they were vastly mistaken.
Game three was more the Penguins style of game, and home ice proved to be huge. And while the sellout crowd was absolutely riotous, spurring on the sensational play of Gary Roberts and in particular an incredible shift by Brooks Orpik, it was the last change that proved to be the Penguins greatest advantage. It's no secret that line match-ups have been a huge plot line in this series, and when Michel Therrien is able to respond to any teams line changes, the Penguins are nearly unbeatable. Likewise when the Wing's Mike Babcock is able to respond the other teams line changes, he can throw out a defensive match-up that can shut down just about anyone.
Though while the last change has been an important storyline in the series, perhaps the loudest story around those close to the game is the greatly increased amount of exposure this year's Cup is receiving. Across the boards ratings are up, and in some spots, up big. In a prime time duel that saw the Wings road game going head to head with the Detroit Pistons NBA Conference Finals road game, the Red Wings walked away winning in a big way. Detriot Neilson ratings saw the hockey game beating the basketball game 18.2 to 15.9.
The Cup series between Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins and the dominant Detroit Red Wings has the NHL looking to parlay the increased attention into reasserting themselves as one of the top sports in the US. And overall, mainstream media seems to be playing along. ESPN, long criticized by hockey fans for their decreasing coverage of the game following it's move to Versus, brought in none other than Hockey Night in Canada's Don Cherry to sit in on segments with Barry Melrose. As well, media credentials are up from 550 last season's finals to 700 this year. Which very well may be a shift in policy for many U.S-based newspapers that had refused to incur the cost of sending a writer to cover the Stanley Cup.
And while on the topic of the increased attention this finals has received, perhaps the greatest aspect of the third game of the series was the excitement it brought. The first two games in Detroit saw the Wings thoroughly dominant the Penguins scorers, and while the Red Wings defensive play may be an astonishing strategic feat, it is also about as exciting as tax season. Which is why those around the game are crossing their fingers hoping that regardless of the final on tonights game, and ultimately the series, the play lives up to the national spotlight the NHL has finally received.