Wings-Penguins: 2008 vs. 2009
DETROIT -- The teams might indeed be the same, but it would be a mistake to suggest this is merely a replay of last season's Stanley Cup finals. Both the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins have undergone significant change, and those changes, especially for the injury-riddled Wings, will continue until the puck drops in Saturday's Game 1.
Here's a look at the metamorphosis each team has undergone in the year since these two met on this same battlefield:
Pittsburgh Penguins1. Attitude adjustment
You can call it "character" or "grit" or "experience," and although it's a little less tangible than saying "Bill Guerin" or "Chris Kunitz" when identifying how the Penguins have changed, it's perhaps the most important difference between last season and this season for Pittsburgh.
As difficult as it might be to pin down, it is nonetheless self-evident. It's evident in the way the Penguins rarely sag no matter the circumstance. Down 3-0 in Game 6 in Philadelphia, they stormed back to eliminate the Flyers in Philadelphia. Down 2-0 in the second round against Washington and without top defenseman Sergei Gonchar for part of the series, the Penguins rallied to win four of five. In that Washington series, they twice allowed the Caps to score on the first shot of the game yet still won both those games.
Against Carolina in the East finals, they allowed the first goal in Games 3 and 4 and ended up outscoring the Canes 10-3 in those games to sweep their way into the Stanley Cup finals. Call it attitude or push-back or resilience, the Penguins have it in abundance this spring in a way that simply wasn't the case in 2008.
"I think they don't try to score as many pretty goals as they did last year," Detroit netminder Chris Osgood noted Friday. "They're happier just to score the ugly, bang-it-in-the-net goals. That comes with experience. You learn from mistakes and move on. I think they have as a team.
"I don't think Malkin and Crosby feel like it's all on them like maybe it was last year. Now they're part of a team. They just seem to me like they're a complete team as a whole."
2. Coaching calm
We always like to remind people that before Michel Therrien seemed to lose his way with the Penguins this season, the former coach turned around a franchise that was going nowhere, even with a young Crosby in the lineup. That said, the Penguins seemed to chafe under Therrien's strict rule and their style of play seemed strangely passive when GM Ray Shero made a coaching change in mid-February, bringing in hitherto unknown minor league coach Dan Bylsma. "As a manager, looking at the team, something wasn't right," Shero said Friday.
Soft-spoken but passionate, Bylsma brings an unbridled enthusiasm to the game. If you watch him take part in the team's regular shootout drills (the last guy to score has to serve beverages in the locker room), he's having as much fun as anyone. That kind of attitude has bled into the coaching staff and the lineup itself.
"He's done a fantastic job," Shero said. "He's made this, for me, the last three months have been my most enjoyable three months as a manager, quite honestly. It's fun to come to the rink every day with this group of guys and the players."
In Bylsma's book, nothing is so bad that it can't be fixed and nothing is so good you can stop working on it.
"For sure there was an atmosphere change," Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke said. "Michel was a great coach and he gave me an opportunity, [but] his message was different than Dan's. Dan came in and initially tried to instill confidence in us and he felt that if he believed in us and showed confidence in us, we should show it ourselves."
The team is back to taking advantage of its one great edge over most teams: its skill, playing creatively with defensemen jumping into the play and multiple looks offensively. No one, it seems, ever takes the easy way out, the players all look for something better. That is something Bylsma, who once played for Detroit coach Mike Babcock in Anaheim, has given them the confidence to do.
"The reason Dan's doing a good job is not because he talked to Mike Babcock or not because he played for Andy Murray or played for me, it's because he's a good person," Babcock said. "He works hard, and he has a passion for the game. Now he's sharing that with his players.
"So I just think he's an intelligent guy," Babcock said. "He's a good family guy, and he's worked hard over a long period of time and maximized his potential as a player and now as a coach to get this opportunity. He gets full marks for it."
3. Seven defensemen
With all due respect to veteran defenseman Philippe Boucher, you wouldn't think his appearance in the lineup would have a significant impact on Pittsburgh's fortunes, but it has. When Gonchar was injured in Game 4 against Washington, Bylsma went to seven defensemen, taking forward Pascal Dupuis out of the lineup.
When Gonchar returned, he was not -- and still isn't -- 100 percent, so Bylsma kept Boucher in the lineup. Boucher has acquitted himself quite well, and the fact the Penguins now regularly play with one fewer forward means Malkin and Crosby take additional shifts with fourth-line wingers Miroslav Satan and Craig Adams. The result has been pretty spectacular.
With Crosby and Malkin playing added minutes, the Penguins suddenly are rolling four lines capable of doing damage. Satan has six points in his eight games since coming back into the lineup, and Adams has three goals in the past five games (so two were empty-netters, but, hey, a goal's a goal).
"I think right down the middle, it is a huge strength for them without any question," Babcock said. "And what you do is, you turn your fourth line into a regular line, or a line you've got to watch, just because the best players or two of the best players in the world [are there], for sure. So it creates matchup problems for you, no question about it."
4. The nonhibernating Malkin
We are nothing if not masters of the obvious, but, gee, Crosby and Malkin are pretty darned good. Of course, much was made in last season's Cup finals when Malkin went MIA. We said then that people needed to cut the kid a break (it was his first long playoff run; sometimes it happens). People also jumped on Malkin early in the Washington series this spring, sensing a return to hibernation. But Malkin responded with a vengeance and has 17 points in nine games since Game 3 of the Caps series. He had a six-game multipoint streak stopped in Game 4 versus Carolina, but his play, both with the puck and without it, suggests a man who will sleep no more (at least not until this series is over). Because he is so different from Crosby, the challenges for the Red Wings are greater, having to adapt to two great players playing two different games as opposed to one.
5. Scoring Sid
We remember folks writing earlier this season that Crosby might never become the great player his promise foretold because he didn't score enough. Uh, apparently Crosby got the memo because he has been a goal-scoring demon. Last postseason, Crosby scored just six times en route to a 27-point performance that left him tied with Henrik Zetterberg for the playoff scoring lead. Crosby has 14 goals through 17 games to lead all playoff goal scorers.
And they're not just throwaway goals, like the fourth goal in a 6-2 victory. Six times, Crosby has scored to open a game this spring, tying an NHL record. He has scored late in periods and to keep his team in games. He has batted at least three pucks out of midair to score goals. A year ago, perhaps you could blunt Crosby's effectiveness by concentrating on shutting down his passing lanes because that was his strength. This year, not so much. He has driven the net for goals and found ways to create space in close to find rebounds.
"Yeah, I think he has the complete package," Zetterberg said. "He's scoring goals and making plays. He's working hard, both on and off the ice. He's their leader. And one thing this year, you know, he's scoring a lot more goals than last year."
-- Scott Burnside
Detroit Red Wings1. Marian Hossa
This is how clever Wings GM Ken Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill are. They knew last summer that there would be a Cup finals rematch with Pittsburgh, so they decided to go out and pluck the Penguins' No. 1 free agent away. OK, we made that up. In fact, as we all know, Hossa chose the Wings, not the other way around. But let's face it, the Wings didn't lose any significant players from last season's Cup-champion squad and added Hossa. Nice. Because of that addition, the Wings had the luxury of splitting up Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk this season. Johan Franzen gets to play with Zetterberg, and Datsyuk, when healthy, plays with Hossa. Then, Valtteri Filppula, who would be a No. 2 center on 20 other NHL teams, got moved down to the No. 3 center spot. That's how huge Hossa's impact was.
2. Darren Helm, impact player
Pretty sure not a lot of Penguins fans would know Darren Helm even if they were to run him over with their own car (that's an old Bill Berg/Pat Burns reference, for you kids out there). They'll know about him in a hurry. The 22-year-old center has been Detroit's most improved player and is leagues beyond the small role he had last season.
"It's been awesome to see what he's done since the start of the playoffs," said veteran mentor Kris Draper. "He's obviously gotten more confident. With Pav being injured and myself being out, there was more responsibility and ice time for him, and he's just taken advantage of that and just played unbelievable hockey.
"Game 5 against Chicago was the best game I've ever seen him play. You know what you're going to get out of him. He absolutely flies, he's going to finish his checks, and for him to step up and get that huge goal for us, everyone was so excited for him. He's just going to continue to get better."
3. Chris Osgood, a new man.
As we told you early in the Western Conference finals, the 36-year-old netminder has gone through quite a lot this season and is a different man for it. He hit rock bottom in February when GM Ken Holland brought him into his office and reamed him out for his poor play, then sent him on a 10-day separation from the team, a la Alexei Kovalev.
"By no means did I enjoy the first half of the season," Osgood said Friday. "It was a struggle. I wasn't mentally prepared to start the year. I know that sounds bad, but that's the truth. I mean, coming off last season, I didn't do the right things to get ready. I can guarantee you I'll not have a regular season like that again."
He came back from the break a new man, rediscovered his winning ways and, we believe, enters the Cup finals as strong mentally as he's ever been.
4. Jonathan Ericsson
The rookie blueliner wasn't on the team last season. And he's not just some rookie. Allowed to develop and blossom in the AHL, the 25-year-old Swede is a bona fide top-four NHL defenseman. Except, in Detroit right now, he's a No. 5. When Brian Rafalski was hurt for part of the second round against Anaheim, Ericsson stepped in and replaced him on the top pair alongside Nicklas Lidstrom, and he did not look out of place while helping defend against Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
"I knew Ericsson was a good player from training camp, but for him to come in and play against [Rick] Nash, Perry, Getzlaf, [Patrick] Kane and [Jonathan] Toews -- some of the best players in the NHL -- it's amazing to me," Osgood said.
and not in a good way
A year ago, this was a pretty healthy bunch heading into the Cup finals. That's far from the situation this time around. Sure, most of the Wings' walking wounded will play in the series, but just how effective will they be? Can Lidstrom play 30 minutes a night? Will Datsyuk get his timing and quickness back right away when he returns? Is Hossa playing on a bum right knee?
This could be a significant, determining factor in the outcome of this series.
-- Pierre LeBrun
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.
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