Stanley Cup Finals Preview
by Trevor Whenham - 05/21/2008
After several years that have failed to entertain anyone outside the hardcore hockey fans, the NHL finally has a Stanley Cup Finals worthy of their dreams. In the Pittsburgh Penguins they have a young and exciting team that is helmed by Sidney Crosby, the most marketable star in the league. In the Detroit Red Wings they have an experienced, respected team of stars that play in the strongest hockey market outside of Canada. There isn't another matchup that would have been better for the league, and the much-improved TV ratings are proof of it. Beyond just the business side, this matchup should also be a dream for fans and bettors. Both teams can score, they are both fun to watch, and they offer the best possible chance of an interesting final.
Oddsmakers seem to favor experience over potential. The Red Wings are -160 favorites to win the series, leaving the Penguins as +150 underdogs.
The Red Wings are enjoying a sustained strong period as a franchise. They won the President's Trophy this year - awarded to the team that earns the most points in the regular season - and it was the fourth time they had done so since the turn of the century. The regular season success hasn't translated to the postseason, though - they have won three of the last 10 Stanley Cups, but none since 2002. Recent history has not been as kind to the Penguins. They have two Stanley Cup wins, but those date back to the Mario Lemieux glory years of the early 1990s. Before last year, when they lost to Ottawa in the first round, they had missed the playoffs four-straight years.
Pittsburgh's revival is no surprise. They picked first or second overall in the draft four years in a row starting in 2003, and they hit a home run each time. Marc-Andre Fleury came first, and he is now their franchise goaltender. Evgeni Malkin was next. He isn't at the same level as Crosby, but he isn't very far off. Crosby was next - a total no-brainer. Finally, Jordan Staal joined the team in the 2006 draft. He's the lowest-profile star on this team, but he's already good enough that he'd be a star on any team in the league. With a core like that it's not a wonder that things turned around quickly. Around that core management has done a great job of building a solid team. They've combined homegrown talent like Ryan Malone, Ryan Whitney and Maxime Talbot with talented and experienced veterans like Sergei Gonchar, Gary Roberts and Petr Sykora. Marian Hossa was added at the trade deadline this season and was the final piece of the puzzle for the team. When Crosby, Malkin and Hossa are in form, as they have been throughout the playoffs, there isn't a team in the league that can keep up to their scoring pace.
This current squad of young players might not have a ton of playoff experience, but they sure haven't shown it. They have played just 14 games so far - two more than the minimum. They swept Ottawa in the first round, and beat the Rangers and Philadelphia in five games. They have yet to lose a home game. In both of their last two series they have had poor performances in the fourth game with a chance to sweep, but they have bounced back both times with good game five showings. Perhaps the biggest fear is that they haven't been challenged to nearly the same extent that they will be when they face the Red Wings.
It's not hard to figure out the major difference between the Red Wings and the Penguins. Crosby, Pittsburgh's captain, is 20 years old. Detroit's captain, Nicklas Lidstrom, is 38. Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is 23. Detroit has 35-year-old Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek, who is 43. The oldest player who is contributing to Pittsburgh's success in the playoffs is 34-year-old Sergei Gonchar. Detroit has nine key players who are older than that, including 46-year-old Chris Chelios. Detroit's youngest core player is 24-year-old Jiri Hudler. Five of Pittsburgh's best players are younger. Age is the single biggest factor in this series. All you have to do is figure out what kind of a factor it will be, and who it benefits.
Detroit is stacked with star players, but it's Lidstrom who is the engine. It would be hard not to call him the best defenseman in the league - He has won the Norris Trophy for top defenseman in five of the last six seasons. He is an absolute rock,, and the leader of a very solid defensive corps. Despite that, though, this is not a team that relies on winning low-scoring games. Their top two offensive stars - Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have 21 and 19 points in the playoffs respectively - the same totals as Crosby and Malkin.
Detroit's path to the finals hasn't been quite as smooth as Pittsburgh's, but it hasn't exactly been a struggle either - they have only played 16 games, and they swept Colorado in the second round. One slightly disturbing habit has emerged - they let both Nashville and Dallas win two games in a row after it looked like Detroit was firmly in command. That seems to have been the result of lapses in concentration, and Pittsburgh is better equipped than any team in the league to capitalize on those lapses if they occur. On the other hand, when Detroit has been in their best form they have looked better than any team in the league, including Pittsburgh.