Lineups, experience, nerves, panic all on tap on eve of finals
They talked of experience and lack thereof, the pressure of the Stanley Cup finals, the delight at being here and a million other things that will all be rendered moot as soon as the series begins Saturday night.
Herein our annual Stanley Cup finals primer.
Interesting lineup decision by Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien, who is expected to keep veteran forward Gary Roberts on the bench for Game 1 even though Roberts apparently has recovered from the mild pneumonia that kept him out of the last three games of the Eastern Conference finals.
"Obviously, I'm not happy about it, but I'm going to let Mike talk about why I'm not playing," Roberts, who turned 42 on Friday, told reporters. "I've been told I'm not playing [Saturday] night, but it's not the time for me to bitch and complain. I've enjoyed being around this group of guys. I've had a trying year, healthwise, not the year I wanted to have.
"The rest has been great for me, and I feel like I'm ready to go," Roberts added. "But you know what, it's not about me right now. It's about the team. One thing I will say, if I do get the chance, I won't let my teammates down."
Roberts has missed time this postseason (groin injury) and has three points in six games. He has also been a healthy scratch previous to this. Roberts is one of only three Penguins with a Stanley Cup ring; he won 19 years ago with the Calgary Flames. If he wins another this spring, he will establish a record for the longest gap between Cup championships.
Therrien appears reluctant to change a lineup that dominated Philadelphia 6-0 in the series-clinching fifth game Sunday in Pittsburgh. If the Pens happened to lose Game 1, Therrien could then insert Roberts and get an emotional lift as a result.
And the old shall inherit the rings
If Roberts doesn't get his second Stanley Cup ring, another graybeard, Chris Chelios, will earn his third. Chelios, at 46 the oldest player in the NHL, will not play in Game 1 after he missed Game 6 of the Western Conference finals with a leg injury. He, too, is ready to play.
"I don't think I'll be playing the first game," Chelios said. "Whether it's superstition or not, they're not changing [the lineup]. We played a really good game to close out the last series." Chelios added that he's "good to go. I'm ready to go."
Roberts and Chelios will face each other for the first time in 19 years. Back in the day, Roberts was a young pup in Calgary and Chelios was patrolling the Montreal Canadiens' blue line when the two met in the 1989 finals. The Flames won in six games.
Not quite cats lying down with dogs, but close
Hands up if you ever thought you would hear Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom, one of the game's finest defensemen ever, say these words: "I think that was big for everyone in our room to realize we can still win without [Johan] Franzen being a part of our team."
Yes, the Swedish forward they call "The Mule" has had a providential season with 27 regular-season goals and 12 more in the postseason, the most in the playoffs. But to suggest the Wings had to learn to win without him is, well, slightly hyperbolic, no?
"I think they knew that," Franzen deadpanned Friday. "We won before I started scoring."
Still, the Wings will have to find a way to get it done once more as Franzen is still not game-ready even though he practiced with the team for the first time after coming out of the lineup before Game 2 of the Western Conference finals with post-concussion symptoms. He is hoping to see action in the finals, though.
"I think it's the right way to go," Franzen said. "First, practice with team. I need to get my legs back. I don't want to hurt the team. I want to try and help the team when I come back."
The experience merry-go-round
So, just what is experience worth? Everything? Nothing? If the Cup finals are different from any other moment in the playoffs, what then did Babcock learn in losing to New Jersey in the 2003 Cup finals when he was coach in Anaheim?
"I've asked myself the same question many, many times. To say, what's the experience give you?" Babcock said. "I think when you don't have experience, you think it's overrated. When you've been through it, you're supposed to be more poised and calmer and better at it and more prepared and all those things. I don't know if that guarantees success.
"To me, what I know is, there's a huge difference between the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Stanley Cup finals. The giddiness of the players, the exuberance and excitement. Look at the people here. It's an exciting time. It's the same if you're 38 or 21. It's exciting."
The experience merry-go-round, Part II
The Penguins, of course, aren't buying any of this -- the "no experience means no hope" line of thinking.
"You read that, but you can't believe everything you read, and obviously you don't want to have any negative thoughts," Penguins forward Max Talbot said. "We know what it takes. The last three years, we've been battling so hard we know what it takes, and we're ready for it."
Lanky defenseman Hal Gill said this is just another new series with different players.
"I don't really know if we buy into that," he said.
Does it ever come up in the dressing room?
"No. It doesn't," Gill said. "You guys talk about a lot of things, and we're the ones that have to play."
The fear factor
Detroit GM Ken Holland had perhaps the perfect description of what it's like to watch two talented teams like the Wings and Penguins go at it with so much on the line.
"The greatest series I was ever involved in watching personally was the '02 third-round series when we played Colorado and we beat them in seven games," Holland explained. "I remember when we had the puck, you felt like you were going to score a goal. When you didn't have the puck, sitting in the press box, I was scared spitless when the Sakics and Forsbergs had the puck.
"I anticipate it's going to be the same type of series when one team has the puck. They'll be attacking, and there's a possibility that a goal could be scored every shift. When the other team has the puck, you'll be hanging on and you've got to make sure you're taking care of business."
It's not memory lane, it's memory dead end
There are a handful of players on the Detroit roster from the Red Wings' 1997 Cup win -- a win few predicted at the time and one that ended a 42-year Cup drought for the franchise. But none of those holdovers will play as pivotal role in this finals series. Netminder Chris Osgood, who was the backup to Mike Vernon in 1997 and the starter a year later when the Wings made it back-to-back championships, has no intention of walking down memory lane as the Wings prepare for their first finals appearance since their 2002 Cup win.
"As for comparing the teams, I don't really like to, because it's 10 years ago," Osgood said. "I mean, we had a lot of different guys. Those were two special teams we had, and it was a special time for the whole organization, those two consecutive years. But that was too long ago."
We won't know until Saturday night, of course, but the Penguins insist they aren't suffering from a case of nerves at all.
"Last year, we were about 16 players that didn't know about NHL playoffs, and that's a lot," Therrien said. "Even if you try to prepare those guys as much as you can, [if] you don't have that taste of the playoffs, it's demanding."
But that experience helped them succeed this season. The fact they are in the finals now is just another building block.
"When we started last year, I'm not quite sure if the confidence was there," Therrien added. "But I can tell you, this is a group, our focus, this is a group that has a lot of confidence in themselves."
The thin skin and the thick skin
Dan Cleary figures to be facing off against either Malkin's line or Crosby's line. Either way, he figures there is one way to play the young stars, and that's tough.
"You've got to hit 'em; you've got to bang 'em, frustrate 'em," Cleary said. "I think we can get to them that way."
"I'm telling you, you can't get to them," he said. "It's such a good role model for everybody else. That's why you don't see any other Wings banging sticks and gates. Lidstrom, never. Datsyuk, Zetterberg, never.
"And that frustrates people the most. Because people want you to say something, they want you to retaliate. That's what they do. Those guys, you can't get them off their game. You can't rile them, you can't do anything. I've seen other star players get frustrated, slam the gate, bang their stick. I've never seen those guys do it."
Let's make some panic
It takes a strong man to understand his limitations. And with all due respect to Clint Eastwood and "Dirty Harry," human backboard Tomas Holmstrom understands his.
The Swedish workhorse, who plays on the Red Wings' top line with Datsyuk and Zetterberg, knows his place isn't dipsy-doodling around the ice with the puck. His job is to race headlong to the opposing net and wait for opposing defensemen to chop and whack him, for opposing goalies to stick him in tender places, for pucks to bounce off and around him.
In his own words, "to make some panic around the net."
Would he rather be somewhere else?
"I know when my teammates have the puck, I'm going to the net," he said. "I know I'm going to park in front of the net. I know it's going to be a battle around the net. That's how it is. It would be nice to be on the half-wall with Pavel and Hank and saucer it back and forth, but that's not the case."
He would have fewer bruises, though.
"Yeah, I can't really do what they can do, so I do my job," Holmstrom said.
Talbot is a great proponent of visualizing things as a way of preparing for games. He visualized having a good game when he returned from a foot injury that cost him three games and ended up scoring the winning goal in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. He has five points in his past three games and is thinking positive thoughts about Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.
"I see myself on the ice, really obviously excited, but not nervous at all or anything," Talbot said. "When I see myself, obviously I think about myself scoring a couple of goals, making big plays, blocking shots, bringing it on. That's what I see myself, and I truly believe that's what I'm going to do."
Draft day magic
The Red Wings' reputation as a team that can spin draft straw into gold is well-known. Look at their lineup and you see Zetterberg selected 210th overall, Datsyuk selected 171st overall, Holmstrom 257th overall and Valtteri Filppula selected 95th overall. Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero called them the model NHL franchise. Much of the credit goes to GM Ken Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill.
Wings coach Mike Babcock, who coached in the Red Wings farm system before becoming a coach in Anaheim, recalls hanging out with Nill at entry drafts.
"I joked with Jim because I worked in the minors with him," Babcock said. "We'd be at the draft, I'd be talking to him deep in the fourth round, he never had anything to do, they never had any picks. But he still found a way to get players. As you watch us in the future, you'll see those players. We have good ones coming, and I think that's the key here."
Cleary missed 19 regular-season games with a broken jaw and is just now preparing to throw off the face shield he's been wearing since. But Cleary expects to be sporting a visor of some kind next fall, thanks to a promise he made to his wife.
"That is the summer promise. If I can next year, I'll have a visor on," Cleary said. "I wouldn't want to do it now," on the theory that it would be too much to try and get used to one with the finals about to get under way.
Cleary wore one once after an eye injury. "But the next game, I had it off. But everybody's wearing them now. I think it's beneficial to wear one."
Does that mean he'll be wearing it around the house this summer or while doing the yard work?
"No. Strictly on-ice," he said. "But certainly, I would need some time to get used to it, but I'm happy to have the shield off now."
Cleary, who had 20 goals in the regular season, has just one postseason goal, but he isn't blaming his face protector. "I've just got to bear down a little bit more," he said.
Setting the bar low
One of the potential advantages the Penguins have over the Red Wings is their offensive depth, which includes a dynamic third line centered by Jordan Staal, with Jarkko Ruutu and rookie Tyler Kennedy. Kennedy has just four assists but has been a dervish every time he steps on the ice. When training camp started in September, did he imagine he might be preparing for his first Stanley Cup finals game?
"One of goals this year was to get a couple of games in at the NHL. Just get maybe three or four, just get a call-up," he said. "Now, I'm in the NHL Stanley Cup finals. It's hard to believe, but it's just been great. I'm trying to take it all in and just experience it."
So, is he having trouble sleeping?
"No," he said. "Nothing I can do about it at night, right? I sleep pretty good."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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