Monday, May 19, 2008
Stanley Cup finals breakdown: Red Wings vs. Penguins
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
There is often debate about which Stanley Cup matchup might be best for the greater good of the NHL: big market, small market, Canada, West Coast, East Coast.
There's no right answer (just wrong ones, more often than not), but no matter how you cut it, the 2008 Stanley Cup finals have all the makings of a classic matchup between some of the most skilled players in the game.
The Detroit Red Wings are trying to win their fourth Stanley Cup since 1997. They are led by captain Nicklas Lidstrom, who will make his case as the greatest defenseman of all time before he's done. The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, are led by the finest 1-2 punch in the NHL in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Pittsburgh is in the finals for the first time since 1992, when now-owner Mario Lemieux was leading the club to the second of back-to-back Cup wins. The Red Wings and Pens are the only teams to successfully defend a Cup championship since that year (Detroit won in 1997 and 1998).
While the Red Wings wobbled a bit in the first round (versus Nashville) and the West finals (Dallas), the Penguins will hit the finals boasting a 12-2 postseason record, just slightly more impressive than the Wings' 12-4 record.
1. Asked and answered. You'd think folks would be talking about a goaltending duel. After all, Detroit's Chris Osgood had the top goals-against average (1.65) and third-best save percentage (.927) heading into a sensational outing Monday versus the Stars and Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury had a 1.70 GAA and .938 save percentage after three rounds.
Yet both netminders are still struggling for respect and you can bet many will be asking if one, or both, will fold under the pressure of being in the finals. It says here goaltending will be a factor, but only in a good way. Osgood has been here before, winning as a backup to Mike Vernon in 1997 and as a starter in 1998. He's been stellar in relief of Dominik Hasek, who went sideways in Game 3 of the opening round against Nashville. Osgood, now 10-2, hasn't faced a ton of shots (fewer than 22 a night on average), but he's been good when needed (witness his 15-save performance in the third period of Monday's Game 6).
Fleury represents the more impressive of the two, given this is just his second playoff experience. You can count on one hand the number of questionable goals Fleury has allowed this postseason. When the team has needed timely saves, he has provided them as he did early in Sunday's 6-0 series-clinching victory over Philadelphia. He has shown nothing approaching nerves, although he will face a much more talented offensive team than he has seen in the first three rounds. Still, the Pens should hit the finals with a slight edge between the pipes.
2. Wither "The Mule?" Both of these teams are loaded when it comes to offense, but if there is a chink in the Wings' armor, it is their scoring balance up front. Since goal machine Johan Franzen went down with concussion-like symptoms after the Wings' second-round sweep of Colorado, Detroit has struggled at times to produce offense (the Wings scored two or fewer goals three times in six games versus the Stars). Franzen still leads all players with 12 goals and five game-winners. Without him, the pressure on the Wings' top line of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom is significant. Shut them down, as the Stars did in the middle of the West finals, and the door will be open for the Penguins, whose offensive depth is so impressive. If Franzen comes back (he hasn't been cleared to practice, according to reports out of Detroit), the offensive table will be quickly leveled.
3. Pick your poison. We haven't seen a team boast this much world-class talent down the middle since maybe Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg were in their prime in Colorado. Start with Crosby, who centers the Pens' "1A" line. Then go to Malkin, who centers line "1B." The Wings will have their hands full regardless of how good their defense is (and it's plenty good). Crosby and Malkin have combined for 40 points in 14 postseason games, and Crosby will hit the finals tied with Zetterberg for the playoffs scoring lead. Almost lost in the shuffle is Pittsburgh third-line center Jordan Staal, who had a terrific series against Philadelphia (four goals). Although his grandfather passed away in the middle of the East finals, Staal is playing like a man possessed at age 19. All three spend considerable time on the power play, which ranks second in postseason efficiency. The challenge for Detroit coach Mike Babcock will be in getting out the defensive matchup he wants against either Crosby or Malkin. Watch for Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski to play against Crosby and Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart against Malkin.
4. The thin blue line. Talking about the Penguins' blue line has almost become urban legend. At the start of the playoffs, the Penguins' blueliners were supposed to be their Achilles' heel (that, and Fleury) and their team defense was thought to be suspect. But the stats suggest the opposite: Pittsburgh has allowed an NHL-best 1.86 goals against per game. The Penguins have also consistently built leads and defended them with sound play from the goal on out. That said, the Wings will try to put as much pressure as possible on the Penguins' D. Hal Gill has enjoyed a strong playoffs and was especially effective in the second round in shutting down Jaromir Jagr. But he is still Hal Gill, and if the Wings can pressure him into overhandling the puck, that's a bad thing for the Penguins. Ryan Whitney and Kris Letang are a talented young defensive duo, but lack experience. Watch for the top duo of Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Orpik to draw the assignment of trying to shut down the Wings' big line.
5. The Big Bang theory. One of the ways to beat a team like the Penguins is to keep the puck away from them, and the Red Wings are one of the best puck-possession teams in the NHL. Another way is to knock the Pens off the puck. Philadelphia tried with limited success, as did the New York Rangers. Detroit does boast one element that will be new to the Penguins in these playoffs, and that's a big-time open-ice hitter like Kronwall. The talented Swede, who is enjoying his first injury-free playoffs for the Wings, has been a difference-maker at both ends of the ice. He leads all playoff defenders with 12 points, one more than Gonchar. But he also has the potential to deliver devastating hits and punish opposing forwards in the Detroit zone. If he can make life interesting for players like Malkin, who likes to weave in and out of traffic moving through the neutral zone, that will be a bonus for the Wings.
• Defense vs. defense: If, as we imagine, this is going to be a clash of skilled titans, then the Wings will start the series with a huge edge on the back end. Lidstrom, Kronwall and Rafalski have combined for 32 points. While Gonchar is steady, the production from the back end drops off pretty quickly with Whitney (six points) and Rob Scuderi (three). That's a mismatch the Penguins will have to compensate for with more scoring from their forwards or exceptional team defense that takes away the Red Wings' threat from the back end.
• Red Wings: Zetterberg, who had two points in Monday's series-clinching victory over Dallas, has points in 10 of his past 11 playoff games. He has three game winners. Valtteri Filppula has one point in his past five games.
• Penguins: Crosby has nine multipoint games this spring. Gary Roberts has played in just six of the Pens' 14 postseason games after suffering a groin injury and then a mild case of pneumonia. He did not play in Game 5 on Sunday, but did practice the day before. He has also been a healthy scratch this postseason.
For the record, we are 10-4 through the first three rounds and have successfully picked the Penguins and Red Wings to reach the Cup finals. All of which means nothing, but we thought we'd say it anyway. Even though the Red Wings boast a much more talented blue line (at least on paper), we like Fleury's toothy confidence and think the Wings aren't going to have an answer for Crosby, Malkin and Staal down the middle. In the end, it will be the Penguins. Penguins in seven.Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.