Cup finals preview: Wings vs. Pens
And while many will suggest the same two teams are set to clash again, that couldn't be further from the truth, both in terms of personnel and mindset going into what should be a terrific series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings.
Much like the youthful Oilers in 1983, last season's version of the Penguins learned the hard lesson that simply being young and talented wasn't going to get them to a championship. In the first two games of the series, battle-tested Detroit schooled Pittsburgh, and by the time the Pens got their feet under them, they were chasing the Wings.
Over the final four games of the series, the two teams were evenly matched. Few will forget the sight of the puck sliding along the Red Wings' goal line as the clock ticked down to zero in the deciding one-goal Game 6.
This season, both teams have faced significant adversity in advancing to the finals. Both have overcome injuries and a seven-game series (most recently, the Wings squeaked by the Chicago Blackhawks with a bevy of regulars out of the lineup in Game 5 on Wednesday night). Both have swept an opponent (Detroit ousted the Columbus Blue Jackets in four in the first round, while Pittsburgh completed a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals).
The Penguins have been led by the dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who have combined for 56 points and made a mockery of the playoff scoring race. Players like Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko also have made the Penguins dangerous up and down the lineup.
The Red Wings' incredible depth has been a key part of their success. Hart Trophy candidate Pavel Datsyuk missed the West finals' decisive Game 5, as did Mr. Norris Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Kopecky, Kris Draper and Andreas Lilja. Marian Hossa, who famously jumped ship from Pittsburgh to Detroit after last season's finals, is just now rounding into form, and Henrik Zetterberg seems to score only into an empty net. But players like Johan Franzen, who leads the Wings with 10 goals, Game 5 overtime hero Darren Helm, Daniel Cleary and Valtteri Filppula have stepped to the fore with key contributions.
1. Goalie garbage. For the love of vulcanized rubber, can we stop suggesting people are wondering about Detroit netminder Chris Osgood? And how about not pontificating on the potential for Marc-Andre Fleury to mess the crease? By returning their teams to the Stanley Cup finals, these two netminders deserve far more credit than that.
Let's look at all the goaltenders who made early exits this spring. Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo were supposed to be the centerpieces of the Canadian Olympic goaltending rotation for the 2010 Vancouver Games. Yet it's Osgood and Fleury who are the last two standing. It's hard to imagine the winning netminder, if not both finalists, won't get an invitation to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp in Calgary in August.
Fleury repeatedly has shown he can bounce back from bad goals. He allowed a soft wraparound to Eric Staal to open the scoring in Game 4 against Carolina in the East finals but ended up shutting the door with 30 shots. Osgood has been just as consistently solid, turning in a 30-save performance in the deciding game against Chicago. He went into that game with a 2.14 goals-against average, second among all playoff netminders.
Despite the skeptics, Osgood and Fleury are elite netminders and enter the finals in a dead heat.
2. The M.A.S.H. factor. With the number of injures piling up for the Red Wings (defenseman Jonathan Ericsson was a late scratch for Game 5 of the West finals as he underwent an emergency appendectomy), their ability to ice a lineup that can keep up with the Penguins is one of the finals' major storylines.
Six-time Norris trophy winner Lidstrom has missed two games, as has Datsyuk. Support players Kopecky, Draper and Lilja all have been out of action lately.
Most troubling, obviously, will be the losses of Datsyuk and Lidstrom if they can't rejoin the lineup or play until after the series gets going, especially with back-to-back games to start the series Saturday and Sunday.
On the other side of the M.A.S.H. ward, Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar continues to impress, logging significant minutes and putting up points after his season looked done when he was clipped knee on knee by Alex Ovechkin in Game 4 of the second round. He's not at 100 percent, though, and the Red Wings will want to pressure him as much as possible. The Canes could not and, as a result, didn't establish a consistent forecheck. The Wings might have more success.
3. Best versus best? During last season's Cup finals, Malkin faded and Crosby was by far the best player for the Penguins. The Wings' best players were demonstrably better, especially Zetterberg, Lidstrom and Datsyuk, who was rocking bodies all over the place.
This season, Crosby and Malkin will hit the finals as the two best offensive players in the playoffs. They are far more mature and responsible on both sides of the puck. For most of the first two rounds, they took turns being dominant, but by the end of the second round against the Washington Capitals, they both were bringing it every night. If they both continue their current level of play, the Wings will be challenged like they have not been challenged this spring.
For Hossa, Datsyuk and Zetterberg, are they healthy enough to compete at that level? If they are, can they mentally get to the place already occupied by Malkin and Crosby? Fair questions, given that none of the Wings' three big offensive threats is having a banner playoffs in terms of production.
Remember that old chestnut about needing your best to be your best? Crosby and Malkin have shown they can answer the bell. The Red Wings? Not so much. At least not yet.
4. Special of the house. Despite their 12-4 record heading into the finals, the Red Wings haven't been all that special when it comes to special teams. At least that's been the case in killing penalties, where they have allowed 15 goals in 16 games with a penalty kill efficiency of 73.7 percent (even worse than their penalty-killing record during the regular season). And against a Pittsburgh power play that is working with more confidence than ever, that's a bad thing.
Working the other side of the special teams street, the Penguins allowed just one power-play goal in their four-game sweep of Carolina. Even with the injuries to its top players, Detroit showed it can make you pay for any lack of discipline, scoring three power-play goals in its 6-2 route of Chicago in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.
5. Made Marian. Just as the Penguins were quiet about their desire to get back to the Stanley Cup finals and exact revenge on the Red Wings, they were circumspect about wanting to prove Marian Hossa wrong.
Hossa basically told the Penguins this past summer that he thought they were a one-trick pony by declining a lucrative multiyear contract to sign a one-year deal with the Red Wings in the hopes of winning his first Stanley Cup. Well, guess what? Someone is going to get the last laugh in this little sub-drama. Not that anyone is going out of his way to knock Hossa's block off, but the Penguins have found a multitude of ways to motivate themselves and this is just one of them.
As for Hossa, he's just starting to look like the player he was last postseason, when he had 26 points. Now, he has just six goals and 12 points, and unless he can improve his production, the chances of the Red Wings capturing the Cup decline pretty dramatically, especially with the severity of the Wings' injury situation.
• Pittsburgh: Crosby and Malkin each have 28 postseason points and combined for 16 points in the Pens' four-game sweep of the Hurricanes. Kunitz has played well and has 11 assists this spring, but, nonetheless, has scored just once in 17 games.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
2009 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
The Stanley Cup finals are here. Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and the rest of our NHL team preview the action: