Into The Crystal Ball: Stanley Cup Final Edition
At first, it seemed like the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins were on a date with destiny by cruising out of their respective Conference Finals, both having amassed a 3-0 series lead. Then the Dallas Stars- Detroit’s opponent- suddenly found its defensive game and pushed the Wings to a Game Six, but the Stars ultimately didn’t have anything left in the tank in falling 4-1 in the deciding game. No matter, it still sets up an incredible Stanley Cup Final, featuring two of the game’s premier offensive teams with loads of tantalizing storylines and intrigue. This will be Detroit’s first Final since 2002 while Pittsburgh arrives for the first time since 1992 (both times the respective team won).
So, with the Stanley Cup Final set it’s time to have another look into my magical sphere and tell you who will win the Great Silver Chalice.
(Playoff record: 9-5)
W1 Detroit Red Wings vs. E2 Pittsburgh Penguins
There may not be a more dynamic group of forwards in the National Hockey League today than those that skate for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Everyone knows about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa, but behind them is a deep and competent cast of forwards that causes nightmares for the opposing coaching staff. Ryan Malone provides a lot of the jam on the Penguins’ top-two forward lines, Petr Sykora has revived his career playing without the pressure of having to be a top forward (like he had been required to as a New Jersey Devil) and Jordan Staal may be one of, if not the, best two-way forward in the NHL today. Plus, with checking line players such as Pascal Dupuis and Maxime Talbot, Michel Therrien’s club boasts the strongest cast of forwards in the National Hockey League today. The Red Wings aren’t too shabby on their end either- you may have heard of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg- but the Wings get more of their offence from the back end, not the front end. Still, there’s enough for Therrien and the Penguins to worry about, from the speedy Mikael Samuelsson, the feisty Daniel Cleary and the rejuvenated Johan Franzen. However, pound for pound, the Penguins have more here than Detroit does. EDGE PENGUINS
This is where the Wings’ vaunted offence really takes flight- from the backend. No team in the NHL can boast the same amount of mobile, puck-moving rearguards that Detroit can boast. Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom would be No. 1 defencemen on any NHL team but they both play for the same club. If that wasn’t enough, Andreas Lilja and Brett Lebda provide the same spark lower on the depth chart, while ageless wonder Chris Chelios provides stability when he’s needed. For their part, Pittsburgh can also display some talent on the back end, including Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar (who will be playing in his second Cup Final), and the bruising Brooks Orpik and Hal Gill should allow the Penguins to rough up the diminutive Wings skaters. Having said that, the Wings’ group is more talented as a whole than Pittsburgh’s, even if only slightly. EDGE RED WINGS
On paper, Marc-Andre Fleury would get the nod over Detroit’s Chris Osgood, but Osgood is a former Cup winner (2002) and Fleury has yet to play a Cup Final game. Both goaltenders boast similar numbers (.931 save percentage for Osgood, .938 for Fleury; 1.60 goals-against-average for Osgood and 1.70 for Fleury) so it’s a dead heat when it comes to the stats. However, Osgood has benefited from a Wings defence that doesn’t allow a lot of shots and while Detroit’s defence is very sound, they haven’t played a team that mixes it up offensively like the Penguins do. Fleury, on the other had, has had to face high-powered offences during the playoffs and has routinely come out with the upper hand. Therefore, if there is a team with the better goaltending, it’s Pittsburgh. EDGE PENGUINS
Neither coach has a lot of experience in the playoffs, but the Wings’ Mike Babcock does have Stanley Cup Final experience, having led the Cinderella Anaheim Mighty Ducks to a Game Seven loss against the New Jersey Devils in 2003, while Therrien had only won one playoff round until this season (2002 first round with a Montreal Canadien). It could also be argued that Therrien’s success owes more to the talent that he has with him than his own abilities, but Therrien’s ability to keep the Penguins on track after some very difficult games (such as the Game Four loss to the New York Rangers) cannot be underestimated. It also bears mentioning that it has been under Therrien that the young Penguins have reached their full potential, since the team went nowhere with Ed Olczyk, the team’s original post-lockout coach. That said, if there was a coach whose system owes itself to his team’s success, it’s Babcock’s, since Detroit’s puck-possession system is the key reason why they’re even in the Cup Final. Therefore, Babcock and all his experience get the nod. EDGE RED WINGS
Ostensibly one would look at Pittsburgh’s sparkling 12-2 record in the post-season and conclude that the Cup is theirs to lose, but historically teams that have stormed their way through the postseason (such as the 1997 Philadelphia Flyers and the 2007 Ottawa Senators, both of whom only lost three games before the Cup Final) wind up getting overmatched come the Cup Final. The Wings’ path to the Cup Final hasn’t been difficult in of itself, but the Wings have had to battle more adversity than Pittsburgh has in this post-season, needing to survive a scare against the Nashville Predators (who tied their first round series after falling behind 2-0 and pushed Game Five to overtime on a last-minute goal) and having to dispose of a Dallas Stars team that might have come back from a 3-0 series deficit after pushing Detroit to a Game Six. Thus, the question must be asked- will the Penguins be able to come through in a war? This series won’t be easy, and the Penguins’ ability to handle that situation will go a long way if Pittsburgh will end its 16-year Cup drought.
Everyone you talk to insists this will be a series and there’s no argument from the orb. Detroit’s deep cast of defencemen cancels out the Penguins’ deep cast of forwards, while Pittsburgh’s goaltending edge is cancelled out by the Wings’ coaching acumen and the Pens’ youthful enthusiasm is cancelled out by Detroit’s experience. When the orb originally predicted this series in the Conference Final, the edge went to Pittsburgh, but that was before the Penguins coasted to the Cup Final and the Wings had to fend off a Stars team that refused to quit. Therefore, after a long and tight series- but one full of goals and excitement- it’ll be capped off by a Game Seven overtime goal by Johan Franzen…just because he always seems to get those kinds of goals.
RESULT: Wings 4, Penguins 3