Who will win the Cup? Our gurus take sides (and it gets chippy)
Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: Again, the start of the Stanley Cup finals. What else?
Scott Burnside: Hello, Damien. Happy Stanley Cup finals! Are you pumped about your trip down Highway 401 to Detroit? Can't wait for Big Al, The World's Most Famous Zamboni Driver, to send bits of octopi flying around Joe Louis Arena on Saturday night to kick off the big tilt.
Damien Cox: I think this one's going to be good. Then again, I thought last season's would be, and it was, well, about as exciting as watching you order lunch. Being a veteran of the Detroit-Windsor corridor, how do you think people will react when they learn of your new betrothed, the Penguins of Pittsburgh?
Burnside: I doubt if they'll care much at the Windsor Press Club, given that it closed down some years ago. And you can just call me Stockholm Boy, if you'd like. Just because I've seen all 12 Penguins games and have decided they might just win the Cup doesn't mean I've gone all Scientology. Of course, you know Detroit is going to win, given your omniscience. What a terrible burden that must be.
Cox: Everyone has their cross to bear. So, for starters, are we agreed that while this may be a fabulous hockey matchup, it's probably taking place at two of the NHL's worst arenas?
Burnside: Yes. If you look in the dictionary under "decrepit," there are pictures of Mellon Arena and Joe Louis Arena jostling for position. As for the working press (an oxymoron if ever there was one), no doubt, outside of the Islanders' barn, these two are the most challenging places to work. I swear there are reporters who are still trying to find their way from the Penguins' press box to the Penguins' dressing room from Game 5 of the conference finals.
Cox: Of course, people don't care, do they? The vast majority of people in Canada and the United States are going to watch this baby on TV, and there seems to be a sense in the air that the NHL may have a chance to make a breakthrough with this series if it turns out to be a good one. Do you buy that? Or are most thinking people too focused on their petunias by now to pay the NHL and its finals much mind?
Burnside: If you can judge by the pre-series chatter, there are certainly a lot of positive vibes emanating from this finals matchup. Whether that vibe translates into more media interest outside the mainstream hockey market and, therefore, more interest from the casual fan, I don't know. It would be nice, but every year at this time, we spin ourselves into tiny bits of dust worrying about whether anyone cares about the finals. I don't really care. This should be great, and it's going to be great fun watching it unfold, regardless. If people are gardening or watching "American Idol" reruns, it sure won't be Pavel Datsyuk's or Sidney Crosby's fault.
Cox: No, and I think the really good news here is Anaheim's victory, via the crosscheck and the punch to the back of the head, last season didn't translate into two similar teams making it to the final two this season. In fact, neither the Wings nor the Pens are remotely like the Ducks. These are two teams that want to skate and have major artillery up front. I doubt the Wings will even dress anyone interested in dropping the gloves with Georges Laraque.
Burnside: Here's the interesting thing about Laraque. After being so whalelike (his description) a year ago that he couldn't skate, he has been a nice part of a four-line Pittsburgh offense. He has four minutes in penalties. Four. He'll still put you through the end boards and he did want desperately to fight Derian Hatcher (who nervously declined) in the conference finals, but Laraque is a good illustration of doing things for the greater good. And yes, you won't see much in the way of holdup hockey this spring. Still, people are going to be disappointed if they're expecting seven 6-5 games.
Cox: True enough. The Wings, to me, surprise you in that they don't score more with all the talent they have. And we all know your beloved Pens are focusing more on defense this spring; in fact, they've been the best in the playoffs at keeping the puck out of their net. To me, it'll be a shame if this series turns into a succession of 2-1 or 3-2 games. Moreover, it'll never capture the imagination of anyone if it goes that way.
Burnside: Well, I'm not sure I agree with you (now there's a novel concept). You and I both know these two teams are perfectly able to put together a series of dynamite 3-2 games. What was the score of the San Jose-Dallas quadruple-overtime tilt? 2-1. It was terrific. And even though the Penguins have the ability to play shutdown hockey, they play as nice a free-flowing offensive game in building their leads as any team in a long time. I think it'll be interesting to see whether the team that is trailing can force the other team out of its comfort zone defensively. Let's not suggest for a moment that if there aren't bushels of goals scored every night it isn't entertaining, because you know that's not the case.
Cox: Man, you are sure drinking the NHL kool-aid these days. One 2-1 game out of a 100 is thrilling and everybody points to it as an example of the perfect match. Goals and lead changes are what make for exciting hockey, my friend, and the fact that the NHL still doesn't have enough of either is why about 40 people south of the Mason-Dixon Line will be watching this series.
Burnside: Wait a minute, you started this dialogue wondering about the positive buzz this finals might create, and is creating, and you're ready to pitch it down the toilet because there might be a couple of low-scoring games? I think you're spending too much time around the Leafs; you need to get out more. Good thing you're coming to Detroit. I know a nice place where you can rehabilitate yourself.
OK, on to the good stuff. You've needled me about my affection for the Penguins (it's actually the sandwiches with the French fries stuffed in the middle. Who knew that would be so good and so good for you?), so you obviously like the Wings in a walk. What's your prediction?
Cox: As always, you distort what I say. I said it can't be all low-scoring, and that would be my fear. A little bit of variety works for everyone. A 1-0 classic here, a 7-6 shootout there, with both goalies getting pulled. The best series I've seen this spring was Philly-Montreal, and there were times it seemed both coaching staffs had left the building. I don't want to see wonderful checking exhibitions in this final. I want to see the terrific skill players on both sides show their stuff.
Predictions. I'm thinking Wings in six. The only way I see Pittsburgh winning this thing is if both Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek go south, which is a possibility. But the Wings haven't been the league's best team all season by accident. Plus, they have the NHL's true MVP, Nicklas Lidstrom. His exclusion from the list of three finalists is, in my mind, nothing less than a joke. The Professional Hockey Writers Association, to which you and I both belong, should be disbanded if we can't see Lidstrom's brilliance.
Burnside: I suppose you were among those who stood in 2006 and bleated that giving Cam Ward the Conn Smythe was a travesty. If we (the PHWA) had nominated Alexei Zhitnik in place of Lidstrom for the Hart, you'd have a point; but the guys on the ballot are full value, and whether it's fair will always be a question of individual greatness on great teams. It doesn't lessen how great Lidstrom is, and the fact he wins the Norris every single season (another award voted on by the writers) means we aren't sleeping every single second of the regular season. And I think the Pens can win this whether Osgood collapses or not. They're not going to be intimidated if they get down a goal or two, and I think they're the team to give you just the kind of finals you're pining for.
Cox: My, my, my; methinks we struck a nerve. Well, regardless of your blinkered Pittsburgh thinking (did you find a bar there you liked or something?), the difference in this series will be Lidstrom. What will be interesting is whether Wings coach Mike Babcock chooses to put him out against Crosby or Malkin. Kris Draper, you have to imagine, will get the checking assignment on the Pittsburgh star who doesn't have Lidstrom chasing him. My question to you, Penguin lover, is how will the Penguins approach stopping the Wings?
Burnside: If I were Babcock (and I have rarely impersonated him), I'd use Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski against the Crosby line and use Niklas Kronwall against the Malkin line in the hopes of maybe unsettling Malkin with some physical play. Use Draper against whomever you like. The Penguins don't do much matching in terms of forward lines, but figure Jordan Staal's line will see some time against the Henrik Zetterberg unit. I am guessing Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Orpik will be on the ice for the Zetterberg-Datsyuk-Tomas Holmstrom unit a great deal. Should be fun. And you know I am a bundle of exposed nerves. I think it's funny when we get all haughty about a vote that doesn't fall the way we see it. Don't have any problem with leaving Lidstrom off the Hart ballot. I think he was No. 5 when I voted. Doesn't mean he's not a fine man and pretty decent defenseman (he was No. 1 on my Norris ballot).
Cox: Haughty, huh? Of course, you did have Crosby, Malkin and Ryan Malone 1-2-3, correct? Orpik against Holmstrom, if it goes that way, will be fun to watch. I think the Pittsburgh blueliner who will have his hands full will be Hal Gill against Detroit's quickness. I got an e-mail from a Detroit fireman this week, wondering that, if I had to choose, would I take Datsyuk-Zetterberg or Crosby-Malkin. I chose the Pittsburgh duo because I think Crosby's special. What say you?
Burnside: I will say this, Gill looked very un-Gill like against the Rangers, and although there were a few times he looked more like Toronto Hal against Philadelphia, he and Rob Scuderi have been very effective. Yes, they're about to get a good dose of Detroit speed, but the Flyers were no slouches with Daniel Briere, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger, Vaclav Prospal et al, and they held tough. As for choosing the dynamic duo, I honestly don't think there's much to separate the two pairs. The one thing that is interesting is that Datsyuk and Zetterberg play together and Malkin and Crosby don't, except on the power play. That's the thing that makes them more valuable, I think, is that they create double the problems for opposing teams.
Cox: The absence of Johan Franzen, who won't be there for Game 1, could be problematic for the Wings. I know the stats usually favor the team that wins the opener anyway, but to me, the first game of the finals could be critical. If the Wings get the jump, the Pens start doubting themselves. If the Pens win, their confidence soars, and it may be hard for the Wings to control that youthful momentum.
Interesting comments on Gill. Just for my own edification, is there a single Pittsburgh player who has been anything short of brilliant in this postseason? And will you be wearing your Jim Paek jersey to the opener?
Burnside: Well, don't have a read on Darryl Sydor yet, but he hasn't actually played. Team goes 12-2 and you're looking for dogs. You do need to get out of Toronto. I think the first couple of games will be fascinating because I suspect the Pens are going to get a dose of adversity early on, and after rolling to 3-0 leads in three straight rounds, that'll be a big test. See you at The Detroiter. I'll be the one in the Shales Cafe T-shirt.
Cox: I knew you'd found a bar in Pittsburgh! Later.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
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