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March 20, 2019
Stanley Cup Finals Preview
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
I believe my feelings for the filthy Red Wings are public record. And itís no secret Iím a Pens fan. But I will do my best to analyze the facts at hand.
1. Defense: The Red Wings have, without question, the best blue line the Penguins have faced this postseason. Thatís assuming, of course, Nicklas Lidstrom is healthy.
Then again, even without Lidstrom, Detroitís makeshift top four of Niklas Kronwall, Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart, and Brett Lebda would be superior to anything Washington and Carolina offered.
But itís not just the defensemen. Detroit has a team commitment to smart, defensive hockey. The Penguins will have to fight for every inch of ice.
Pittsburghís opening series against Philadelphia was a good test. The Flyers sat back in a 1-4 and tried to slow games to a crawl. The Pens eventually won out thanks to their speed and skill, but it was tough sledding. And the Wings are far better at it than the Flyers.
2. Depth: Detroitís role players are responsible for carrying the Winged-Wheel back to the Finals. Dan Cleary is second on the team with eight goals; Valtteri Filppula leads the club with 13 assists; Jiri Hudler has nine points; and even the speedy Darren Helm has chipped in three goals. Theyíve outperformed the superstars most nights.
But what makes Detroit so formidable is itís got four stud scorers in Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, and Johan Franzen, who seems to channel Maurice Richard come playoff time. Pittsburgh has dominant franchise superstars in Kid Crosby and Geno Malkin, but theyíre still only two dudes. Mike Babcock can deploy his four stars across three lines and create mismatches whenever he wants. Thatís trouble.
3. Championship Pedigree: The Wings are the champs for a reason. They know what it takes to win, and theyíre not scared to sacrifice.
1. Health: Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Kris Draper, and Jonathan Ericsson are all questionable for Game One. The Wings may have been able to handle the young, inexperienced Blackhawks without their full compliment of players, but they wonít be as fortunate against the Penguins. If Datsyuk, Lidstrom, and Draper are on the shelf for any extended period of time, the Wings are done.
2. The Schedule: A short break and back-to-back games to open the series isnít much of a reward for winning the Campbell Conference Finals in five games. The Red Wings have their share of injuries, and they also have the older legs. If theyíre not ready to go in Game One, this series could get away from them in a hurry.
3. Chris Osgood: Keep praising your glorified No. 2 netminder all you want, Detroit fans. Deep down, you know your boyís a stiff. Heís a product of the system. His biggest strength is he no longer seems to make the monumental, soul-crushing mistakes he did in his youth. So he probably wonít give the Pens anything.
To be fair, Pittsburgh has benefited greatly from Simeon Varlamov (whiff on Fedotenko) and Cam Ward (whiff on Talbot) mistakes. Then again, Varlamov and Ward made saves Osgood has no prayer of duplicating.
The Pens are averaging 34.9 shots per game through the first three rounds. Thatís pretty consistent with what they did under Dan Bylsma in the regular season, and itís a good five shots more than what they did under Michel Therrien.
And hereís a dirty little secret about the Red Wings. While they remain a great defensive club, theyíre nowhere near as good as they were last year. There are chinks in the armor.
In the 2007-08 postseason, Detroit allowed a paltry 23.6 shots per game, right in line with what the Penguins were able to do against them in the Finals (23.8). But his year, the Wings are surrendering 28.8 shots per contest.
To put that number in perspective, Pittsburgh yields 28.9 shots per game. And the Pens have faced Philadelphia and Washington, two clubs loaded with snipers. So Detroitís defensive advantage may not be all itís cracked up to be.
The bottom line is Pittsburgh, due to the combination of its more aggressive play and Detroitís weaker defense, will put more pucks on net. If the Penguins consistently produce 30+ shots a night, they expose Osgood and win going away.
1. Greatness: Sidney Crosby is a born winner. Stanley Cups are his birthright. Itís only a matter of time with Sid. He failed last year. Heís not the kind of guy who fails twice.
I still donít think people realize how special Crosby is. Weíre witnessing greatness. And I donít just mean in terms of hockey. The kid is a freak off nature. Heís Michelangelo. Heís Mozart. Heís Don Knotts.
Wayne Gretzky was 23 when he won his first Stanley Cup. Mario Lemieux was 25. Itís hard to imagine a 21-year-old kid could be capable of reaching the pinnacle of his chosen sport so quickly, but if anyone could do it, itís Crosby.
And that Geno Malkin guy is no slouch, either. Malkin was a complete non-factor in last yearís Finals, failing to record a single point in the first four games. That will not happen this time around.
2. Experience: A year ago, being in the Finals completely overwhelmed the young Penguins. Marc-Andre Fleury tripping on his way to the ice was all too fitting. They didnít even manage a single goal in the first two games, losing 4-0 and 3-0. They learned a harsh lesson, but they learned.
Pittsburgh also has the experience of competing against Detroitís efficient, machine-like system. The first time a team plays Detroit in the playoffs, it can be a touch intimidating. Notice Games One and Two of the Finals last year or the efforts Columbus and Chicago put forth this year.
The Penguins wonít be surprised. On the other hand, the Red Wings have never faced Dan Bylsmaís Pittsburgh Penguins. The new aggressive style, which emphasizes a relentless forecheck and puck pressure, gives them a much better chance to beat Detroit than Michel Therrienís defense-first, counter-punching scheme.
No team is going to out-defense the Red Wings. But if you skate, get the puck deep, and maintain a tight gap, you have a chance. Pittsburghís forecheck is the best way to combat Detroitís puck-possession game.
Donít forget, the Pens also added four Cup winners in Ruslan Fedotenko, Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, and Craig Adams. Combine those guys with all the experience gained in last yearís run to the Finals, and thereís no chance this team rattles.
3. Character: The Penguins are battle tested. The first round against the Flyers was as physical as any series in recent memory, and the Pens had to dig deep. They blew Game Five on home ice and came back from a 3-0 deficit in Game Six in Philly to close it out. Thatís clutch.
The Washington series was even more trying. Pittsburgh lost the first two games before rattling off three straight wins. Then they dropped Game Six in overtime on home ice only to go into Washington and spank the Caps in Game Seven.
Last year, the Pens waltzed through the first three rounds, going 12-2 and never needing more than five games to dispatch their foes. The first hint of adversity they had was when they went down 2-0 to Detroit. Now, the Pens have seen it all, and theyíre a stronger team for it.
This Pittsburgh club expects to win. The Pens are 30-8-4 since February 16, which was their first game under Bylsma. Over that same time, the Red Wings are 26-13-2.
1. Inconsistency: In 2007-08, the Penguins were nearly flawless in the first three rounds, playing Therrienís defensive scheme to perfection. Very few defensive breakdowns. Well, not so much this year.
The Pens have been real sloppy at times this postseason. If you go back through their 12 wins, theyíve probably only had five complete, 60-minute efforts. The other victories have been due to sheer star power, with Crosby, Malkin, and Fleury taking turns stealing games.
Itís bad enough the defensive zone coverage has been abysmal, but the Pens have even drifted away from their forecheck on occasion. Thankfully, the line of Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke, and Tyler Kennedy usually keeps the club pointed in the right direction. But Pittsburgh canít afford any mental lapses against Detroit.
2. Lack of Depth: Pittsburghís supporting cast canít match Detroitís in terms of firepower. The offense rolls almost exclusively through Sid and Geno. Yeah, the secondary guys came through in Game Four against Carolina, but they arenít exactly prolific scorers.
3. Marc-Andre Fleury: I love the kid like a brother, but heís been sketchy at times, particularly when it comes to rebounds and moving the puck. The Flower needs to be a pillar of strength in goal. Heís capable, and heís shown the ability to make big saves at key moments to win games, but he canít have any letdowns against Detroit. He could afford to allow a couple soft ones against the Caps and Canes; the Pens would get it back. But each goal in the Finals will be monumental. He has to make the Wings earn whatever they get.
Marian Hossa has had a mediocre postseason, collecting a mere six goals and 12 points in 18 games. Last year, he had 12 goals and 26 points riding shotgun for Kid Crosby. So maybe he signed with Detroit because he had a better chance becoming an average player.
Hossa did come through when the Wings needed him most, though. He delivered two goals in Game Four against Chicago, picking up the slack for the injured Datsyuk and Lidstrom. And heís capable of lighting it up at any moment.
But maybe Penguin fans should be thanking Hossa. After all, had he stayed, the Pens would have undoubtedly been better in the regular season, and that means Therrien may never have been fired. All things considered, Iíd rather have Bylsma than Therrien and Hossa.
Still, how could anyone possibly be rooting for this creep? Itís one thing to sign with Detroit, but his parting comments were unforgivable. Saying Detroit gave him a better chance to win was a slap in the face to Crosby and everyone else in that Pittsburgh dressing room. Even if he believed it, he sure as hell didnít have to say it.
How awesome will it be seeing Hossa go through the handshake line greeting the victorious Penguins? Aw, that will be great, that will be fun. Screw Hossa in the ear.
Malkin will be the guy to watch for the Penguins. You know Crosby will show up. Malkinís participation can be a day-to-day thing. He was awful last year in the Finals. But itís never too late to mend.
And you also may want to keep an eye on Jordan Staal. His hat trick earlier this season against Detroit stands as one of the most remarkable individual performances Iíve ever seen. He was an absolute monster that night. Hereís hoping he treats us to an encore.
If Bylsma elects to go with six defensemen, Pascal Dupuis would dress and fill out the fourth line with Talbot and Craig Adams, while Miroslav Satan would likely jump up to the second unit alongside Malkin.
Or will Petr Sykora get another chance? Sykora was the hero last year, burying the triple-overtime winner to send the series back to Pittsburgh for Game Six. Now heís a forgotten man.
Look for Bylsma to keep rolling with seven defensemen until heís forced to do otherwise.
Naturally, Iím never going to pick Detroit over Pittsburgh, but I honestly like the Pensí chances. Two things bother me.
First, Crosby is still ridiculously young. If he wins a Cup at 21, he could literally win it every year for the next 10 seasons. Really, if the mighty Red Wings canít stop him, who will? We could be witnessing the start of a new dynasty.
Second, I never got the feeling this Penguin team was a Stanley Cup champion. There were just so many changes so late in the season, their overall defensive game doesnít stack up to the Lemieux teams or even last yearís version, and they still have a center playing wing on their second line. Yet, despite all the grief, they can beat anyone simply because of Crosby, Malkin, and Fleury.
In the end, I say the Penguins prevail. They take advantage of the schedule and Detroitís injuries to avenge last yearís loss and stick it to that creep Hossa. (Sunshine) Detroit.
Pittsburgh in six.