The Pittsburgh Penguins have reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the second straight year, however do not make the mistake that this is the same team as last year. Pittsburgh’s roster has been altered, the coach has been changed, and the feeling of shock and awe that comes with a Finals appearance is gone. There is only one goal for the Penguins this year, and it is to sip sweet brandy from Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Many important pieces of the puzzle have come together during the Penguins Cup run this year–pieces that were not in place during last season’s trip to hockey’s biggest stage. One area in which Pittsburgh has the advantage in 2009 is injuries. Sidney Crosby is not fighting a lingering ankle injury this year, while Detroit’s lineup looks more like a hospital check-in list. Red Wings defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Jonathan Ericsson missed parts of last series and forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Kris Draper look like they could spend more time in a luxury box than on the ice for the Finals. Don’t forget the Red Wings will still be feeling the effects of a very intense series with the Chicago Blackhawks in which three of the last four games when into overtime. The Penguins increased physical play this year combined with the proximity of the first four playoff games means it’s not unlikely that Pittsburgh could steal one in ‘Hockey Town’ from a Red Wings team whose age just might be catching up with them. Injuries have a way of not hurting as much when you are winning though, so the Penguins are going to need more than just physical play–an area in which last year’s Cup Finals experience could help them out.
Penguins fans should keep in mind that if the Cup does return to Pittsburgh this team will have overachieved, which is a rarety in a era where dynasties (such as the Red Wings could be) rule sports. Penguins captain Crosby is only 21 years old, and many of the elite players on the team such as Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Jordan Staal have not even reached their 25th birthday. These young stars have all been locked up for the near future in hopes that the Penguins would bring home a Cup within the next four years, anything before that should be considered a bonus.
So who should win the Cup, and who will win the Cup?
Mike Babcock’s resume is beyond impressive. He is the only coach in NHL history to lead a team to 50+ wins in his first three seasons with them and this year marks his third trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in seven seasons. Babcock was voted coach of the year by his peers last season and is following right in the footsteps of old Red Wings and Penguins coach Scotty Bowman. If there is one other coach that Babcock should be compared to it is Bill Belichick–he has a knack for finding the opposing team’s weakness and exploiting it. This surgeon-like attribute is reflected in his coaching style, as he has the ability to make his team play any style as if they have been running that system for years.
Dan Bylsma has taken the NHL by storm. He is a natural born leader and the players have rallied behind him. One reason why Pittsburgh’s shot at winning the Stanley Cup this year is better than last year’s is because of the coaching. Bylsma’s high-aggression system fits the young Penguins squad much better than did Michel Therrien’s trapping system, and ‘Disco Dan’ has made the necessary adjustments to ensure that the team is clicking on all cylinders. By putting pressure on the puck and setting up a hard forecheck, the Penguins may catch the Red Wings off guard.
The advantage here has to go to Detroit since they have one of the finest coaches in the league, but don’t expect Bylsma to back down as he has done a superb job in the playoffs so far.
Pittsburgh–Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin/Bill Guerin
The only reason why the offensive advantage does not go to the Red Wings here is because of Crosby and Malkin. The co-point leaders of the playoffs have been on an absolute tear and their confidence is at an all-time high. You can bet that after losing in the Finals last year the duo’s hunger for a Cup is only stronger, however the key to the Penguins success will be if Malkin shows up. We know Crosby will have a fantastic series simply because he brings his best when it matters most, watch the Washington series again if you do not believe me. Malkin has a tendency to disappear in big time games though. His playoff point total may not indicate it, but Malkin has not played his best throughout the post season and the Penguins are going to need him to step up if they want to bring home any hardware. Another thing the Penguins have going for them on the offensive side of the puck is that this year they have a solid third line. The combination of Staal, Tyler Kennedy, and Matt Cooke has been phenomenal and is a major reason why this year’s team is better than last.
Detroit is stacked when it comes to offense. The Red Wings roll four lines that have no trouble putting the puck in the net, and the Detroit role players are already on their way to being NHL superstars. Production comes from everyone, see overtime winners from Mikael Samuelsson and Darren Helm for evidence. The real problem is that Datsyuk, who was their regular season leading scorer, ranks 11th on the team in playoff points and he will not be held with only one goal for long. One specific quality that is limited to Detroit is that everyone on the team is a finisher, there will be no yawning cages left without pucks in them such as Eric Staal saw last round. Expect Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom to be big problems in front of Fleury. Small consolation, but that will be a small price to pay if the Penguins can shut down Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Marian Hossa.
The defensive advantage without a doubt goes to Detroit. The Red Wings sport one of the best defensemen of all time in Nicklas Lidstrom, and have plenty of firepower to back him up. Big hitting Niklas Kronwall is always a threat and has constant puck presence–which will put plenty of fear in the Penguins offensemen. The Red Wings are not without offensive defensemen either though, as Brad Stuart, Brian Rafalski, and Ericsson can all play two ways. Detroit has everything possible on defense, from shut-down defenders to offensive specialist–they are the best defensive unit in the NHL.
Every Penguins fan should be sending the Carolina Hurricane’s a thank-you card for giving the Pittsburgh defense some confidence. Last round’s four game sweep in which only nine goals where allowed showed everyone that the Penguins defense can buckle down. Detroit, however, is not Carolina. The key for the Penguins is going to be for Kris Letang and Sergie Gonchar to actually worry more about offensive production than defensive presence. This does not mean that they should not play defense, it simply means that the Red Wings are going to score their goals and the Penguins are going to have to counter–which means goals have to come from the blueline. Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik and Mark Eaton have to shut down Zetterberg, Hossa and Datsyuk, and let the U.S.S. Hal Gill clear out the big boys in front of the net. If the Penguins want a shot at winning they are going to have to make Detroit’s role players beat them.
Just as in the Washington series, the special teams play will most likely decide who will win the Stanley Cup. Detroit’s powerplay is clicking at just under 26%, and with sharp shooting defensemen at the point they are going to be close to unstopable. However, Pittsburgh has become a very disciplined team throughout the post-season, averaging only 11 penalty minutes per game. If the Penguins penalty kill plays the way it did against Carolina it may just be strong enough to hold the Red Wings at bay. The Hurricanes went one for 12 with a man advantage in the Conference Finals, with their only tally coming in game one.
The bad news for Pittsburgh is that the Penguins powerplay still does not look like the 2008 version. Pittsburgh is connecting on just under 20% of their man advantages, but this may not be a problem in the Cup Finals. The key to success for the Penguins is having their special teams play match the Red Wings special teams play, which is a likely scenario considering Detroit’s penalty kill is only hitting at 73%.
It is as simple as this: Chris Osgood will not steal any games if the Penguins can manage to outplay the Red Wing’s skaters. The key to the Detroit net-minder’s success is the 18 guys skating in front of him. The way Osgood wins games is by saving the shots that he should save and playing solid positional hockey while the defense takes care of the rest. If Pittsburgh can crack the Detroit defense it will be smooth sailing for the black and gold, but this is much easier said than done.
On the other hand, Marc-Andre Fleury needs to be the best player on the ice for the Penguins. If the ‘Flower’ can consistently perform this series like he did in game four versus the Hurricanes the Penguins have a good shot to bring a third Stanley Cup back to The Burgh. Fleury is as hot as they come, winning eight of his last nine games and coming off perhaps his best playoff series ever. He has the skill advantage over Osgood, and experience and nerves will not be issues this series after having gone through the Cup Finals last year.
Only three things stand in the way of the Red Wings winning the Stanley Cup for the second consecutive year: Fleury, Crosby and Malkin. The three superstars for the Penguins must be on top of their game every night, which means that Malkin cannot pull his disappearing act when it comes time for him to carry the team on his back. What this series may come down to though are two key advantages Detroit holds over Pittsburgh: depth and defense. In the end I believe the Red Wings will prove to be too much for the Penguins and Geno will not post the numbers necessary for Pittsburgh to win their first Cup in 17 years. However, as was said earlier the Penguins are still young enough to win a Cup. If they happen to beat Detroit this year, it puts them is a solid position to reach dynasty status over the next decade. A rare cross-conference rivalry may be brewing here as this years Finals will prove to be one of the best in recent memory.
Advantage: Detroit: 4 games, Pittsburgh 3 games
Conn Smythe Trophy Winner: Henrik Zetterberg