DETROIT — Max Talbot is the jokester in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ dressing room, a low-round draft pick on a team filled with first-round big names. The guy who doesn’t complain when he’s shifted to the fourth line or asked to take on a difficult role.
How’s this one for an assignment of a little-noticed career: The man asked to win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals for a team that looked to be out of playoff contention four months ago.
With Sidney Crosby limping and Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin not finding any open ice, Talbot played a game worthy of franchise icon Mario Lemieux by scoring both goals as the Penguins became the first team in 38 years to win a finals Game 7 on the road, holding off reigning champion Detroit 2-1 on Friday night.
Max Talbot, this is your moment — and Marc-Andre Fleury, too, as he finally quieted the talk he can’t win a big game by making 23 saves in the biggest game of all.
Now, the list of players responsible for the Penguins winning Stanley Cups includes first-round draft picks Lemieux, Jagr, Crosby, Malkin, Fleury — and Talbot, an eighth-rounder and the 234th player taken in the 2002 draft, a proven scorer in juniors who was told he must reshape his game to make it to the NHL.
Retool it he did, becoming a grinder, a role player, a utility man deluxe with a knack of scoring big goals in big games, such as the goal he scored in the final minute of finals Game 5 a year ago, with the champagne on ice in Joe Louis Arena. The Penguins went on to win in three overtimes, although they lost the series a game later.
They wouldn’t lose this one, despite Jonathan Ericsson’s goal with 6:07 remaining and Nicklas Kronwall’s shot that struck the crossbar and landed in front of the goal line with slightly more than 2 minutes remaining. The sigh of relief emanating from hockey-crazed Pittsburgh almost could be felt 260 miles away.
And remember the label of City of Champions given Pittsburgh in 1979, when the Pirates and Steelers were world champions? Pittsburgh, the smallest city with three major league sports teams, has won the last two titles in major pro sports with the Penguins following up the Steelers’ Super Bowl victory on Feb. 1.
And the player known as Mad Max for his sense of humor, gift of gab and his ridiculously funny TV commercial for a car dealership pulled it off on a night that Malkin and Crosby couldn’t. Crosby was hurt early in the second period and was on the ice only briefly in the third.
By winning, the Penguins completed one of the most improbable comebacks in NHL history. Stuck in 10th place in the Eastern Conference in mid-February, they fired coach Michel Therrien although he had taken him to the finals last year and replaced him with minor-league coach Dan Bylsma.
Bylsma immediately installed a more uptempo, press-the-attack offense that eased the tension in an unhappy locker room and the Penguins took off, going 18-3-4 down the stretch. They pulled off an upset in the second round when they out second-seeded Washington by winning 6-2 in Game 7 — yes, on the road.
They’re the first team since those Al MacNeil-coached Canadiens not only to win Game 7 on the road, with six teams trying and failing since, but to win with a rookie coach who took over at midseason.
How’s this for a scenario nobody would have predicted: The Penguins don’t get a goal from Crosby or Malkin, the two leading scorers in the playoffs, for the final three games, yet they win the Stanley Cup because of Tyler Kennedy and Max Talbot.
Kennedy had a hand in three consecutive goals from Games 4 through 6, with third-line teammates Jordan Staal and Kennedy getting both goals as Pittsburgh won 2-1 in a win-or-else Game 6 on Tuesday.
Talbot’s two-goal performance was similar to that of current teammate Ruslan Fedotenko, who unpredictably scored both Tampa Bay goals as the Lightning beat Calgary 2-1 in Game 7 in 2004, though that was on home ice.