Thursday, May 28, 2009

Stanley Cup Finals: Pittsburgh vs Detroit

So now we have it. This year’s Stanley Cup Final is the first rematch since 1984 when Edmonton beat the New York Islanders to end the Islanders dynasty. In 1982-83, New York swept the young Edmonton team in four games, but Edmonton won the series in 5 games in 1984. Last year, Detroit beat Pittsburgh in six. Can Pittsburgh pull off the same feat as Edmonton did?

In this year’s playoffs, Pittsburgh has the league’s top 2 scorers (Malkin and Crosby) and have scored the most goals of any team (65 for an average of 3.82 goals per game). Detroit is second in goals scored (59) and second in goals per game (3.69). Detroit has the edge in goals against, ranking second with 2.13 GAA, while Pittsburgh is 8th with a 2.76 GAA. On special teams, Detroit’s power play is ranked higher than Pittsburgh’s, but their penalty killing has been abysmal.

As far as the goalies go, Detroit’s Chris Osgood has been his usual self (solid, if unspectacular) and Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury has shown a mental toughness that he didn’t have earlier in his career.

Pittsburgh’s best players have been playing their best hockey. Crosby and Malkin both have 28 points in 17 games. Bill Guerin has been solid with 7 goals and 7 assists, and while he’s not scoring, Chris Kunitz has chipped in 11 assists. Timely goals by role players (Max Talbot – 4 goals, Ruslan Fedotenko – 6) and defenseman (Mark Eaton – 4, Kris Letang – 3) have helped Pittsburgh reach the finals again.

Detroit, on the other hand, has had to go with a more balanced approach. Leader Johan Franzen has 19 points in 16 games, Henrik Zetterberg as 18, but guys like Hossa (12), Datsyuk (7), and Holmstrom (5) have to be seen as disappointments.

Recently, Detroit has been having injury troubles. Nic Lidstrom has missed the last two games, so has Pavel Datsuyk. Kopecky, Draper, Lilja, and Jonathan Ericsson all missed time in the most recent series. The only serious injury on Pittsburgh’s side is Sergei Gonchar, who is playing well (though not 100%) after taking a knee-on-knee hit from Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin.

I think the keys to this series will be the special teams (as I mentioned above) and Pittsburgh’s forwards vs Detroit’s defense. Pittsburgh’s fast, aggressive forecheck gave fits to all three teams they have faced so far. But none of their opponents have had as skilled a defense crew as Detroit does. With Lidstrom out of the lineup last night, Coach Mike Babcock went with pretty much four defensemen in the game - using 47-year-old Chris Chelios and second year player Derek Meech sparingly. Detroit was able to hold Chicago to only one goal, but playing that much has to take a toll on an already banged up corps.

Frankly, I like the Penguins chances. Anaheim gave Detroit more trouble than I thought they would. Chicago lost in 5 games, but three of those went to overtime. The Penguins are a year wiser and know what to expect in the Finals. Detroit is banged up, but still dangerous and still one of the top teams in the league. I’m calling an upset. Pittsburgh in 6 or 7.

PS. As a Penguins fan, I'd like to see them stick it in Hossa's face for bolting last summer. He turned down a multi-year contract to go to Detroit for one year, saying he wanted to win a Cup. You have to give him credit for going for a championship instead of just money, but it was still a slap in the face to the Penguins and their fans.

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