It's hard not to like the deep, talented Detroit Red Wings, who have shaken off injury and age to give themselves a chance to win their second straight Stanley Cup. But the youthful, dynamic Pittsburgh Penguins are in much better position to knock off the defending champions in a rematch of last year's finals.
Hockey fans see a lot of TV spots these days telling them how many seconds it takes to complete the Stanley Cup playoffs (a lot), and how every second is important (which is quite often true).
And, voila! We’re being treated to seconds in the finals. The Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins stage a rematch of the 2008 series Detroit won in six games, and it seems a slight majority of those with an opinion forecast a Wings win for the second straight year.
To which we say: Not so fast.
Now, we’re not saying the Red Wings aren’t remarkable. They are.
Detroit loses players – future Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and scoring leader Pavel Datsyuk in the Western Conference finals against Chicago – plugs in others, and keeps winning.
Guys like goalie Chris Osgood (3.09 goals-against, .887 saves percentage in the regular season; 2.06 and .925 in the playoffs) and Dan Cleary (40 points, dead even plus-minus rating in 74 regular-season games; 14 points, plus-16 in 16 playoff games) reinvent themselves in the post-season.
And there’s a mystique that comes from winning four of the last 11 Cups.
Clearly, this organization knows what it’s doing, which is admirable – but a bit boring by now.
The Penguins are far more interesting, especially this year. They fired Michel Therrien and promoted minor-league coach Dan Bylsma, who has guided Pittsburgh to a 30-8-5 record (12-5 in the playoffs). They bucked convention at the trade deadline, ignoring those who thought more defense was needed for the post-season by adding first-line wingers Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin.
And they’ve got the two most exciting players left in the playoffs in centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who are tied for the league’s post-season scoring lead with 28 points in 17 games.
So if you favor charisma over continuity, you’re probably a Pittsburgh fan for this series.
The big-picture subplot in this series involves Detroit winger Marian Hossa. Acquired by the Pens at last year’s trade deadline, he then turned down Pittsburgh’s five-year offer for a one-year deal with the Wings, thinking they had a better chance to win the Cup.
So can Pittsburgh avenge last year’s defeat, and get the last laugh on Hossa? Absolutely.
By far the younger of the finalists, the Penguins are also healthier. That should favor them at the start of the series, which begins with back-to-back (Saturday-Sunday) games at Detroit, followed by just one day off before Game 3. And the start of last year’s final, in which the Wings took a 2-0 lead, is where the Pens lost it.
Youth isn’t always served in the finals, but the likes of Crosby, Malkin, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and No. 3 center Jordan Staal have learned a lot – and learned well -- in the last year. This group has won six of its last seven playoff series, so besides being battle-ready, the Penguins are battle-tested.
Pittsburgh beat strong teams (first Philadelphia, followed by Washington) before outclassing Carolina to win the East. Detroit has so far beaten two playoff novices (Columbus and Chicago), and needed seven games in the second round to beat No. 8 seed Anaheim – as depth-challenged a team as qualified for this year’s playoffs.
Finally, Osgood’s post-season track record notwithstanding, he hasn’t faced offense as deep and potent as Pittsburgh’s in these playoffs. We’re giving the goaltending nod to Fleury.
The Red Wings still have a lot going for them. Still, the Penguins have more going for them than last year – enough to beat Detroit in four of the next seven games.
The Patriot Ledger