- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

PITTSBURGH | Maybe this city’s version of “The Big Three” has a chance to dethrone the defending champs after all.

Each of their three young centers - Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal - had a goal and an assist Thursday night as the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Detroit Red Wings 4-2, holding serve in the Stanley Cup Finals to level the series at two games each.

Pittsburgh’s first-round picks in 2004, 2005 and 2006 - none is older than 22 - might be the best 1-2-3 punch down the middle in the NHL. Three goals in less than six minutes after the Penguins had fallen behind changed the course of this contest - and maybe the series - and at least one of the three centers had a hand in all of them.

After Brooks Orpik went to the box for Pittsburgh’s second straight infraction, Staal took a pass from Max Talbot and went one-on-one short-handed with defenseman Brian Rafalski. He maneuvered past Rafalski and snapped a shot past Chris Osgood at 8:35 for his first goal since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Washington.

“[The goal] certainly changed the complexion of the game,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “Jordan had speed up the ice and made a strong move like he can with his big body and scored a great goal for us. It energized not only our team but the building and kind of got us rolling from there.”

Crosby converted a pass from Malkin on a two-on-one less than two minutes later. Malkin’s first attempt to connect with Crosby was thwarted by a prone Jonathan Ericsson, but the second pass was true. Crosby has 15 goals this postseason, the most since Joe Sakic had 18 in 1996.

Tyler Kennedy finished a beautiful tic-tac-toe play at 14:12 to make it 4-2. Crosby one-timed a pass from Chris Kunitz to Kennedy, who potted his fourth of this postseason and forced Detroit coach Mike Babcock to call his timeout to quell the momentum.

“We talk about our penalty kill, but I thought our power play sucked the life out of us tonight,” Babcock said. “They got energy, and they were on top of us. Then we turned the puck over, I would say in the next five minutes enough for a whole game.”

Malkin put the Penguins in front 2:39 into the opening period. With Pittsburgh on the power play, goalie Chris Osgood stopped Staal’s shot, and Kris Letang’s offering missed the net high, but the puck caromed off the lively end boards to Malkin, who was able to chip it in.

It was Malkin’s 14th goal this postseason. He has 35 points, the most since Wayne Gretzky had 40 and Doug Gilmour 35 in 1993.

Darren Helm knotted the score at 1-1 late in the period. During the first four-on-four of this series, Helm intercepted an outlet pass by Rob Scuderi and snuck a shot inside the near post to the left of Marc-Andre Fleury at 18:19. It was the fourth of the playoffs for Helm, who has six career postseason goals but none in the regular season in his two seasons with the Red Wings.

Brad Stuart scored early in the second period for Detroit, but that lead soon disappeared.

Last year the Penguins won Game 3 in this building after falling behind 2-0 in the series, but Detroit prevailed in Game 4 for an insurmountable 3-1 series lead. Teams that win the first two games at home have gone on to win the Cup 31 of 32 times before this year, but Pittsburgh has made it a best-of-three with Game 5 set for Saturday night in Detroit.

“Everyone talks about momentum, but I’m a big believer that momentum is as good as the next day’s starter kind of thing,” Babcock said. “Just get out there and playing again and go from there.”

Notes - Kris Draper returned to the Red Wings’ lineup after missing the past five games with a lower-body injury. He replaced rookie Justin Abdelkader, who scored in Games 1 and 2. …

MVP finalist Pavel Datsyuk did not play for the sixth consecutive contest for Detroit because of a foot injury. He participated in the morning skate, but his absence continued.

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