The Red Wings are good, but the Penguins announced Wednesday night they didn't sneak into the finals in the back of the turnip truck with a hard-hitting 3-2 victory that for the first time revealed the kind of hockey this series had promised at the onset.
Game 4 is here Saturday and the Penguins will be looking to run their home playoff record to 10-0. The Penguins have not lost at Mellon Arena in regulation time since Feb. 13.
"[The] media's going to be media, and obviously when you're down 2-0, they're not going to say probably too many positive things about you," said Pittsburgh defenseman Darryl Sydor, who was inserted in the lineup for the first time since March 31. "But we know in this room, as a family here, we felt confident. We just tried to narrow it down to coming out today and winning this game, and tomorrow's a new day."
When you get to this point of the playoffs, the two remaining teams have enjoyed far more success than failure. So when the inevitable happens and one team falls behind, those moments of failure become magnified because they are so foreign to that team. The offensively gifted Penguins had failed to score in the first two games, and the reviews suggested this was going to be a Stanley Cup flop.
"You know what, for a lot of those players, this is their first win at the Stanley Cup final, and it's huge for them," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "And it's huge for the confidence, especially the way that we play at home, the way that the crowd supports our team."
So, did the Penguins learn they were actually a good team on Wednesday night, or did they know it all along and simply start to execute? Maybe a bit of both.
"As far as creating things, I think we did a better job creating more. I think that came from patience," said Crosby, who moved back into a tie for the NHL playoff scoring lead (23 points) with Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg after his two-goal performance. "They're a team that plays in your face, but sometimes you realize you have a little bit more time in certain plays, and just focusing on deciding when to hold onto it and when to dump it in. [It] probably just took a little time to get used to."
It didn't start that way. For much of the first period, Game 3 looked like a little déjà vu from the first two games.
The Penguins had one decent scoring chance by Ryan Malone on a power play early on, but the Penguins failed to register another shot compared to nine for the Red Wings through the first 15:07 of the first period. Crosby took the Penguins' first 5-on-5 shot with 4:53 left in the opening frame. From that point on, it was as though the proverbial light bulb went on and the Penguins realized they did, indeed, belong in this game and series.
Crosby poked home a rebound with 2:35 in the first period to give the Penguins their first lead of the series and end a Cup finals goalless streak that had reached 137:25.
"Until you score a goal, you're saying things that don't mean too much," Pittsburgh defenseman Ryan Whitney said.
But when Crosby beat Chris Osgood with a quick shot that sneaked between Osgood's pads, it was as though the entire sold-out Mellon Arena exhaled as one. "It's almost like 'Oh, they're human,'" Whitney said.
It was Crosby again, this time on the power play, giving the Penguins a 2-0 lead early in the second period to set the Penguins on track to their first victory.
In the first two games, it was Detroit that secured the lead and then closed down the Penguins. On this night, while not as technically strong as Detroit, the Penguins provided their own version of the lockdown that featured a much more physical element. That style of play, combined with the greater ease with which they moved the puck through the neutral zone, was much more reminiscent of how the Penguins rolled through the first three playoff rounds.
"I thought they were on top of us more. I didn't think we executed as much coming out of our zone," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "Just like most teams, when you get turning pucks over in your own zones, you know they're going to be more physical because they have more opportunity to be."
That in-your-face style was evident on the goal that re-established the Penguins' two-goal lead.
After the Wings had pulled to within 2-1 on a Johan Franzen power-play goal with 5:12 left in the second period, Gary Roberts hammered Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall in the Detroit zone. The Penguins maintained possession of the puck, and with bodies littering the front of the net, fourth-line center Adam Hall bounced the puck off Osgood's butt and into the net.
"The third goal was a tough one for us to give up, just because it makes it hard to come back," Babcock said.
At one point during the third period, there were almost six minutes of uninterrupted play, featuring end-to-end rushes, thunderous body checks and one brilliant save by Fleury on Tomas Holmstrom.
It was the kind of hockey that most envisioned when this series started. It wasn't evident in Detroit because the Red Wings were so sound and disciplined. In Pittsburgh, with the emotion from the crowd and the urgency of being down 2-0 in the series, this game had a different personality, more open and hard-hitting and dynamic -- the kind of hockey that suits the Penguins perhaps more than the Red Wings.
"They responded. That's the thing that happens in the Stanley Cup finals," Detroit's Kirk Maltby said. "We knew it was going to be a tough series and they were going to come at us tonight."
The Red Wings closed to within a goal for the second time in the game with a Mikael Samuelsson shot from the half-boards 13:37 into the third, a shot that probably should have been stopped by Fleury. But the Penguins rallied to shut down the Red Wings down the stretch, including killing off a crucial late-game hooking penalty by Evgeni Malkin to preserve the victory.
"When they made it 3-2, you looked down the bench and we could have panicked," Whitney said. "But we said, 'Screw that.' We even threw in a big kill."
Was Game 3 another lesson learned in a long springtime of new lessons? The true answer will be revealed Saturday in Game 4. But, for one night, the Penguins erased any doubt that they belong in this finals series.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.