STANLEY CUP FINALS EDITION | STANLEY CUSP

PITTSBURGH – The first whistle was bad enough, a penalty in the third period, four men against five. But the second whistle was like a gauntlet smash from the gods.

“You want the Stanley Cup?” it seemed to screech. “Go through this fire and prove it.”

So Andreas Lilja skated into the penalty box, joining Kirk Maltby, and the blindingly white-clad Pittsburgh crowd rose to its feet, lungs bursting, howling for blood, and for one minute and 26 seconds the Red Wings would have three skaters to the Penguins’ five, and for one minute and 26 seconds, they would prove they were impenetrable, they were for real, and they were worthy of the grail.

What else you got? The Penguins won face-offs, they fired wide shots, they surged and pulled back and surged again – but the Wings met them at every turn. The seconds ticked down. The crowd screamed louder. Still no goal. Henrik Zetterberg tied up the NHL’s chosen savior, Sidney Crosby, before he could get his stick on a rebound. Still no goal. Then Zetterberg stole the puck and took it into the Pittsburgh zone, spinning and weaving and actually firing a shot himself. The seconds ticked. The advantage evaporated.

Maltby out of the box. Lilja out of the box.

Red Wings out of trouble.

Pittsburgh out of magic.

“That was huge,” Zetterberg told NBC after the 2-1 victory Saturday night that puts the Wings within a victory of the Promised Land. “They had a real opportunity to tie it up. But we got through it.”

What else you got? The Wings took a 3-1 lead in these Stanley Cup finals by bursting a three-month curse – the Penguins’ perfect record in the Igloo. That’s right. The Pens had not lost here since Feb. 24. The Wings ended that. They did it without their favorite man-in-the-middle, Tomas Holmstrom. They did despite giving up the first goal, which has been death against the Penguins before this game. They it on a night when much of the game felt like wet hair clogging down a drain.

And they did it, ultimately, by surviving the hardest stone the hockey devils can throw at you – a five-on-three in the third period in the other guys’ building. They survived. They emerged intact. They are likely home in their beds as you read this, dreaming about one more victory, one more hurdle, and a Cup that soon could have their names engraved. It’s up to Pittsburgh to show something more – but the Pens may have played out their best card already.

What else you got?

Stepping up for Homer

“It never gets old,” captain Nicklas Lidstrom said of being one game away from his fourth Stanley Cup. “We know as a team we haven’t won anything yet. … But this is what you play for all year long.”

Remember, this was a night in which the Wings were minus Holmstrom, which is a little like Linus minus his blanket, or a cockpit minus the co-pilot. It is impossible to measure how much Holmstrom adds. The Wings have grown blissfully accustomed to seeing him when they look at the net, out there bugging the goalie, pushing, nudging, flicking his stick, creating trouble.

But in this critical game, Holmstrom suddenly could not go, a hamstring injury that frustrated him to no end.

“When did you know Holmstrom couldn’t go?” coach Mike Babcock was asked.

“When he didn’t come to the game,” he said, laughing.

It would be a different look. Others would have to step up. And they did. On the Wings first goal, Dan Cleary, the pride of Newfoundland, was out there in the Holmstrom spot, out in front o the net, and he created enough distraction to allow a long Lidstrom slapshot go flying past Marc-Andre Fleury.

That was huge, because it came less than five minutes after Pittsburgh had scored first, a less-than-great goal surrendered by Chris Osgood. The Penguins had not lost when they scored first. And that type of goal could have been demoralizing.

But these Wings are mature beyond their years and beyond their thickening facial hair. They never rattled. And Osgood regrouped and played shutout hockey the rest of the way, never bigger than on that five-on-three.

“First thing I thought,” Babcock said of that shorthanded survival, “was I can’t believe this action just happened.”

Imagine how Pittsburgh felt.

What else you got?

Don’t get too excited – yet

We’ll find out in Game 5 Monday night at Joe Louis Arena. The Wings have to be careful here. No carts before horses. Detroit sports already knows the folly of taking too much out of breaking the other team’s home streak (do the Boston Celtics ring a bell?).

But it seems increasingly clear that the Wings can handle anything you throw at them. Their star players are playing big (Lidstrom, Zetterberg) and their role players are playing big (Jiri Hudler had the winning goal, after a pass from Brad Stuart and Darren Helm, the fourth line).

“We played great all year long and all through the playoffs,” Zetterberg said. “… Now we’re going home to play in the home arena, but we have to play we want and do the little things right.”

They can sniff it now. It is that close. That near. The aroma of Stanley Cup glory is wafting through the air, blowing in on westerly winds that swirled beneath the wings of a plane that was to bring the Red Wings home this morning.

One win to end it all. One win for the throne. What else you got, Pittsburgh? Because the home ice, the first goal and the five-on-three thing didn’t stop them.

And it looks like nothing will.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

Photo JULIAN H. GONZALEZ / Detroit Free Press THE GAME-WINNER: Wings forward Jiri Hudler celbrates his goal that broke a 1-1 stalemate early in the third period. The assists went to Darren Helm and Brad Stuart.

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