Friday, May 29, 2009
I thought last year's Stanley Cup finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings was the finest hockey I'd ever seen, so I'm thrilled there's going to be a rematch. Some remakes are better than the original, and this could be one of them. The Wings took the Cup last year in six games. This time I predict the Penguins will turn the tables. I'm calling Pittsburgh in six.
...The last time there was a rematch in the Stanley Cup finals was in 1984, when Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers faced the powerful New York Islanders, who'd won the last four Stanley Cups. I covered all four of those Cup wins for Sports Illustrated, and had done numerous stories on the rise of Gretzky and the young Oilers, so I was as familiar with the two teams as anyone in the media. The year before, in the 1983 finals, the Isles had swept the high-octane Oilers, holding them to just six goals in four games. Led by Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, and Bryan Trottier, and with "Battling Billy" Smith in goal, they'd shown no signs of slowing down.
The Isles were tough, they were mean, they were talented, and they were well-coached. Further, they had an eye on history with their "Drive for Five", for only one other club, the Montreal Canadiens, had ever won five straight Stanley Cups, which the Habs did between 1956-1960. I was certain the Isles would make history by beating the Oilers again in 1984 and claim their place as the greatest hockey dynasty of modern times. "Five games? Six games?" I boldly wrote the week before the series started. "It doesn't matter. The Islanders will win it."
....What I hadn't taken into account was how much the younger Oilers had learned from their defeat the year before. A high-powered offensive juggernaut, Edmonton learned the value--the absolute necessity--of team defense in a Stanley Cup finals. In the opening game, on the Islanders home ice, the Oilers shut down the Islanders attack and won a nail-biter, 1-0. They played Islanders hockey. It set the tone for the rest of the series, which the talented Oilers went on to win rather easily, in just five games. The Isles, who looked old and tired by the final game of the series, never really recovered their mojo, and they haven't been back to the Stanley Cup finals since.
....There's a lot of similarities between this Detroit-Penguins matchup and that Isles-Oilers series of 1984. The Oilers were led by the 23-year-old Gretzky, who was already the greatest player in the world. But his resume lacked a Stanley Cup, and the Isles loved to point out that the Cup, not scoring titles, was what they were playing for. The Penguins are led by Sidney Crosby, their 21-year-old captain, who has been called the next Gretzky since he was 18. It isn't fair. He's no Gretzky. But Crosby is a great player who is mature beyond his years. He has a burning intensity to win, and he leads all goal scorers in these playoffs with 14. Yet Sid the Kid is carrying himself like he hasn't done anything yet. He remembers what a long summer it is when you lose a Stanley Cup finals, and he won't let his teammates forget.
....But you need two scoring lines in the playoffs, and Gretzky had a pretty good center behind him by the name of Mark Messier. The second-leading scorer of all time (behind Gretzky), Messier was a force of nature during the playoffs. He gave the Oilers a one-two punch that the aging Islanders couldn't cope with. It's the same with Pittsburth. Crosby has a guy named Evgeni Malkin playing behind him, and Malkin's had a breakout playoffs. He absolutely dominated the Carolina Hurricanes in the conference finals, scoring six goals and three assists in four games.
More important, he began throwing his weight around in all three zones, much as Messier used to do. Who knew that Malkin, with his magic hands and explosive bursts of speed, could also hit and play defense?
If Malkin continues to play as he has been--and why wouldn't he?--it will be impossible for the tired and injured Wings to stop both Penguins scoring lines. They can try to match up 39-year-old Niklas Lidstrom against either Crosby or Malkin. But not both.
....Which isn't to say the Red Wings will be overmatched. They're deep, well-coached, experienced, and highly skilled. But Detroit is wounded. Their leading scorer (97 pts) and best forward this season, Pavel Datsyuk (below), missed the last two games of the Chicago series with an injured foot, and he is questionable for Game One Saturday night.
Lidstrom, who is still the best defenseman in the game, also missed the last two games against the Black Hawks with some sort of lower body injury. He'll be in the lineup for Game One, but it's doubtful he'll be 100%. Kris Draper, one of their best penalty killers, is out indefinitely with a sore groin, and defenseman Jonathon Ericsson had an emergency appendectomy on Wednesday. The stars are out of alignment for the defending champs.
....None of which would matter if Detroit had superior goaltending, but that isn't what 36-year-old Chris Osgood gives them. Like the Islanders Billy Smith, who was 34 in 1984, Osgood gives the Wings experience and dependability. He's solid. He's played on three Cup winners, starting in goal for two of them. But Osgood just isn't going to steal a series, the way the Penguins Marc-Andre Fleury is capable of doing.
Yes, Osgood shut the Penguins out in the first two games of the finals last year, but Pittsburgh was still starstruck, happy just to be in the finals. By the time they woke up, Detroit was up two games to none. The Penguins will come out firing on all cylinders this year, and I don't see Osgood being able to withstand it, the way Washington's rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov did so spectacularly in the Caps-Pens second-round series, which went seven games. With the first three games of the finals scheduled to be played over four nights, I look for the young Pens to jump out fast and wear the battered Wings down. Detroit's penalty killing unit has given up a horrendous 15 goals in 16 playoff games, and Pittsburgh's power play may go to town.
....So there it is: Pens in six. But I've been wrong before. After the Oilers dispatched the Islanders in 1984 and had supped from the Cup, a funeral wreathe was delivered to the Sports Illustrated offices in New York. It was addressed to me, adorned with black roses, and sent by my friends from the Edmonton Journal. The card read: "Five games? Six games? It doesn't matter. The Islanders will win it. May your prediction R.I.P."
Posted by E.M. Swift at 11:27 AM