Collision course for finals rematch?
Editor's note: Our "Faceoff" features ESPN.com NHL writers Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Pierre LeBrun (based in Toronto), who duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
Topic: Are we destined for the Stanley Cup finals rematch?
Pierre LeBrun: Scotty, my friend, greetings from Detroit, where the Red Wings are poised to finish off the young Blackhawks in Wednesday night's Game 5. It's interesting; after having so many six- and seven-game series in the opening two rounds, it appears both conference finals will be short ones. Which is good, because I wasn't in the mood to cover hockey games in July.
In my series, I don't think people are too surprised. The Blackhawks have been a remarkable story, perhaps the most compelling in the NHL this season, but very few people believed they were ready to knock off the defending champs. In your series, however, I have to say I'm surprised the Penguins could win it in four or five games. Given what Carolina did to New Jersey and Boston, I thought the Canes would give the Pens more of a push. Your thoughts?
Scott Burnside: Pierre, likewise, good to hear from you. Apart from our brief intersection at Game 7 in Washington (second round), our paths haven't crossed. That's going to change sooner than later, though, as you pointed out. With all due respect to the Canes and the Blackhawks, both compelling stories in their own right, there is a certain parallel between the two series: The better team isn't just a little bit better, but a whole lot better. And I know it's never over until it's over, but it's hard not to start thinking about a Stanley Cup finals rematch, only this time the Penguins have learned a whole lot about what it takes to be a winner. It sets the stage for what should be a grand clash between the two best teams in the league right now.
LeBrun: And I should remind our readers that you predicted a Wings-Pens Cup finals back before the puck was dropped for the playoffs, so nice job by you on that one. Here's what I find interesting if the Pens and Wings do end up in the Cup finals. Yes, I agree with your assessment that the Pens are better prepared for that kind of challenge this time around. But, on the other hand, if you look at both rosters compared with last season, I would argue the Wings are better, while the Pens slightly regressed.
Detroit wins a Cup and adds star winger Marian Hossa. Then, the Wings add huge strides in development in Darren Helm and also finally call up prized blueliner Jonathan Ericsson. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, loses Hossa, Ryan Malone and Jarkko Ruutu, and later Ryan Whitney, and has replaced them with Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin. I know Guerin, in particular, has been dynamite, but you think on paper they're a better team than a year ago?
Burnside: Ah, my friend, the game is rarely played on paper. I think they are better for a couple of reasons, and those reasons are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. People may get tired of hearing how good they are, but when they are playing as well as they are right now (and Crosby's been doing it since Game 1 of the playoffs), it naturally makes players like Guerin, Kunitz and even Satan, left for dead at the trade deadline when he was sent to the minors, that much more dangerous.
For the first two rounds, we saw Crosby and Malkin almost take turns being the difference-makers from game to game. Now, they're both going simultaneously, and I don't think there's a team anywhere that can stop them when that happens. As for the Wings, they're going to go to the finals (sorry, Hawks) without getting top-end production from many of their top guys. That's what is so impressive. No Pavel Datsyuk, no Nicklas Lidstrom, no Tomas Kopecky, no problem in Game 4.
LeBrun: And no Kris Draper or Andreas Lilja either on Sunday. That's how deep the Wings are. They were missing five regulars Sunday, including a pair of future Hall of Famers, and they didn't miss a beat. Mercy. No argument here on your points about No. 87 and No. 71. I'm especially impressed by Crosby; his will and determination is out of this world.
Like you said Scotty, we've got a lot of readers who are sick and tired of hearing about it, but the truth is, it's amazing to see. And he's just so consistent. He doesn't take a night off. If we do get a Wings-Pens rematch (I'll be more diplomatic than you, Scotty), I'm interested to see how Crosby and Malkin react this time around to the deep Wings blue line that gave them such a hard time last year. I remember Crosby in particular talking about what it was like to play against Lidstrom. Now, throw in young Mr. Ericsson, and you've got some kind of Wings blue-line corps, easily the best the Pens would have faced all spring long.
Burnside: Yes, there is no doubt the Red Wings pose different threats and challenges than any team the Pens have faced this spring (provided neither of these teams commits the ultimate choke job now that we've started assuming the finals series matchup). But their path to this point is much different from last season. Brooks Orpik was talking about it today. Last year, they went 12-2 en route to the Cup finals. This season, they've played better teams and had to work harder to get to this point. I think that's a sign of maturity and focus.
Funny, the two teams, should they meet, will also have similar questions about their goaltending, in Detroit's Chris Osgood and Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, whose success in a finals series might be the tipping point to at least being invited to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp this August. Agree? Disagree? (Not that you've ever disagreed with me before.)
LeBrun: Well, as I wrote in a story on Osgood earlier in this series, I think it's time for people to stop "wondering" about him. His playoff goals-against average is 2.14, easily the best of the four goalies left. I think the finals would be a bigger pressure point for Fleury given his so-so performance last season against Detroit. But you're right, if Fleury and the Penguins win the Cup, you wonder what that does for the Pittsburgh netminder with Team Canada.
I still think Roberto Luongo is the man, with Martin Brodeur and Cam Ward right behind, but now with Fleury possibly beating Ward in the conference finals, a Cup championship would certainly improve his Olympic stock. But I ask, why not invite Ozzie to the camp in August, especially if he wins his second straight Stanley Cup? Isn't that the kind of battle-tested guy you want on your team in such a pressure-packed environment on home soil? Just a thought.
Burnside: Oh, I think it's a great talking point and will be one of the many subplots if the Wings and Pens do meet again in the finals. (Oh, yeah -- there's that guy named Hossa, too; think he used to be Crosby's linemate. That'll probably garner some attention, too.)
Before we close, though, we've talked a lot about Pittsburgh and Detroit, but I think there's a certain parallel to Carolina and Chicago. The Hawks are much younger, but both teams pulled off upsets that many believed would not happen, and they did it by not quitting. The Canes have been getting great production and strong play from players like Chad LaRose and Matt Cullen, and the Hawks have seen Dustin Byfuglien step up. All are great stories and they did their organizations proud this spring by getting to the final four. Especially in the case of the Blackhawks, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them right back here a year from now, when, maybe, we'll be saying the same things about Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews that we're now saying about Malkin and Crosby.
LeBrun: You know, having covered seven Blackhawks games now over the past two rounds and spending some time with the team, I absolutely love what's going on with them. They've got a terrific group of players with great character. You mentioned Byfuglien, but there are so many other players who have stepped up, such as Dave Bolland and Adam Burish and Kris Versteeg. I mean, Bolland is really a guy who gets very little attention, but he's centered probably their best line of the playoffs between Martin Havlat and Andrew Ladd.
No matter what happens here with the Wings in this series, it's all gravy for this Hawks team. To me, they're a deeper squad at this point than Pittsburgh and Washington were in their first playoff forays. And you mentioned Kane and Toews; they've been terrific, on and off the ice. They're both polite, young stars who already get it and understand their roles. I can't tell you how many times both kids stand there and do wave upon wave of media interviews and don't lose patience. And look at what Toews did Sunday while his young teammates lost their composure and went around the ice looking for trouble. He kept his head down and tried to play the right way no matter what the score was. He's definitely worthy of wearing the "C." There are some championships waiting to be won by this guy.
Burnside: Now, you know that having pronounced the two series over that both the Blackhawks and Hurricanes will mount improbable comebacks and we'll be back here next week eating crow. Regardless, always good to connect. Until our paths cross next ... in Detroit, I am guessing.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.