Saturday, May 24, 2008

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


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Inter Repeat As Champions

A brace from Zlatan Ibrahimović just after the hour mark sealed a 2-0 win over Parma and third consecutive scudetto (second on the field) for Inter Milan on Sunday, giving the Nerrazzuri their 16th title overall. Inter had blown two other chances to wrap up the title in losing to AC Milan at the beginning of the month and drawing 2-2 with Siena at home the week before and bringing up painful memories of the 2002 collapse, but all was forgotten after Ibrahimović- who returned from a knee injury and came on as a substitute- fired Inter Milan home and condemned the once powerful Parma to a spell in Italy’s Serie B.

This title victory went differently than it did last season. Last season, Inter sewed up the title with five games remaining and wound up winning by 22 points, but despite the impressive display (and the fact the title would have stood without the Calciopoli-imposed point deductions), pundits found reason to complain about the title because Juventus was forced to spend the season in Serie B and Milan started the year docked eight points. This season, Juventus was back in Serie A and no one started the year with point penalties, so none of the complaints from last year would have any merit. If Inter’s success last year raised any doubts, this season’s victory would completely dispel them.

It certainly wasn’t easy and for a while it did look like 2002 would rear its ugly head again. On February 16, a 2-1 win against Livorno gave Inter an 11-point edge over second-place AS Roma in the standings, but a series of reverses (including losses to Napoli, Milan and Juventus and draws against Siena and Genoa) saw Inter pick up only 22 points over their next 14 games and reduce the margin to one point before the victory over Parma. The collapse was shocking but it wasn’t completely unexpected- Inter was hit with a barrage of injuries to a number of key players late in the season (Walter Samuel, Luis Figo, Ivan Cordoba, Luis Figo, Ibrahimović), and nor was the ultimate margin of victory and Roma (who were second last season) had considerably improved themselves from last season and should have been figured for a tighter race with Inter. It was also not a race without controversy. In two games Inter benefited from penalties, both for handball offences- one to Parma’s Fernando Couto late in the reverse fixture (that one deserved) and one to Empoli’s Ighli Vannuchi (undeserved, albeit close and that mistake was down to sightlines)- plus a pro-Juventus publication put their team (surprise, surprise) on top of Serie A after all the “refereeing corrections”; but any complaints about refereeing bias ignored the fact Empoli was also awarded a penalty against Inter and the fact Inter played a man down for five games during this season (including against both Parma and Empoli). The complaints bore a not-so-subtle hint of jealousy and perhaps the cries of conspiracy were expected in the wake of Calciopoli, but there’s no reason to think Inter got an undue advantage from the referees.

The race was one of several great storylines for 2007-08. There was Napoli, back in Serie A after a lengthy absence, finishing in a respectable ninth and posting impressive wins over Inter and Milan in the process. Then there was Fiorentina, who would have qualified for the Champions’ League last season had it not been for the point penalties, managing to qualify for the CL despite losing Luca Toni in the offseason (because, peculiarly enough, he wanted to play in the CL). Following that was Roma, staying right with Inter through the final stages despite having less than half the star power Inter (and several other Serie A sides) had. The rise of those two teams suggests that Serie A is once again reaching the level of parity it had seen in the era of the Six Sisters (Inter, Lazio, Milan, Juventus, Roma and Parma) from the turn of the millennium and can no longer be said to be dominated by a few teams (unlike in England where it is firmly in the hands of either Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea). Finally- once you look past the bitter fanbase- there was Juventus, who had the roughest of stretches in 2006 and 2007, playing with the kind of heart and determination that was downright inspirational. The team may have had a disappointing summer in failing to acquire any high profile players but they more than made up for it with their dogged work ethic and overachieving with a team that was a shell of their pre-Calciopoli selves. Here’s hoping La Vecchia Signora can restore the pride in the team their previous administration so wrongly took away from them.

As for the disappointments, one can’t help but start with Milan, the defending CL champions but bottoming out in the Round of 16 to Arsenal and falling to fifth in Serie A after a 3-1 thumping at the hands of upstart Napoli. The result was shocking but those in the know saw a Milan team whose defence was now firmly over the hill and is in desperate need of rebuilding. Empoli, the small-market story of 2006-07 (finishing sixth with a club from a city of only 45,000), never quite got anything going this season and slumped badly to the relegation zone. Palermo and Lazio, who had been Serie A powers a year before, did not suffer similar fates but similarly slumped, dropping to 11th and 12th respectively after incredibly inconsistent years. Last but not least on the team side is Sampdoria, a side who could have been tagged as a sleeper outfit after acquiring the talented (but temperamental) striker Antonio Cassano, who stayed true to form with 10 goals in 22 games and receiving a five-game ban after throwing his shirt at the referee after being sent off against Torino. The rest of the team struggled to maintain their form (especially early in the season) and although they did nail down a UEFA Cup berth, Sampdoria could have achieved much more. Key to their struggles was their record against the top five teams, as Sampdoria managed only eight points in ten games (1-4-5, winning only against Milan). There is plenty to build on still, but the pressure is on the 1991 scudetto winners to prove that they can be contenders and not pretenders. Finally, chief among all the disappointments is the death of Gabriele Sandri, a DJ and Lazio fan caught by a stray bullet from a police officer trying to break up a fight with Juventus ultras. The death cast a pall on an otherwise great season and brought up scary reminders of Filippo Raciti’s death just months before, showing that anti-hooliganism in Italian soccer still has some work to do. Hopefully Sandri’s death can serve as a reminder that it is “just a game” and one hopes that the relative quiet one saw in the 2008 portion of the schedule is a sign of things to come.

In the end, this was Inter Milan’s year to shine, but theirs wasn’t the only story. If last year was dull and marred by the Calciopoli penalties, this year proved that the sizzle is back in Italian soccer and that there is- finally- a lot of positives to look forward to in the coming years. See you in 2008-09.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Into The Crystal Ball: Conference Final Edition

Now that the Conference Semi-finals are *finally* over (a nod to the epic marathon the Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks provided us in the Stars’ 2-1, quadruple overtime victory in Game Six that ended San Jose’s season), it’s time to look into my shiny orb and tell you who will be in the Stanley Cup Final- and ultimately who will win it.

(Semi-final record: 2-2, Overall record: 7-5)


#1 Detroit Red Wings vs. #5 Dallas Stars

The way Game Six was going, one had wondered if this series would begin at all, but Brenden Morrow ended all speculation of that by scoring midway through the quadruple overtime session to oust the Sharks. The result can be characterized as an upset since no one believed Dallas could have defeated San Jose, but as the series played out the Stars were more than just the equals to the Sharks- they were, in fact, superior. At least at San Jose’s game- the dump-and-chase, clog-the-middle, grind-it-out-and-overpower-them type system. It’s small wonder why Morrow- one of the best power forwards in the NHL today- torched the Sharks with four goals in six games (and two others called off) to single-handedly lead the Stars past San Jose. He’ll probably have a field day with the Wings’ smaller forwards and will appreciate the fact he- and the rest of his teammates- won’t have to face an elite goaltender (although Chris Osgood has been effective in that area for Detroit), but the Stars’ defensive system is going to have fits containing the Wings. The Sharks played a simple- maybe too simple- north-south game: the Wings are very adept at moving the puck laterally as well as forward with their mobile, puck-moving rearguards led by Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom and that is going to cause countless coverage problems. Plus, Detroit isn’t just Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg anymore- Johan Franzen, “The Mule”, can now be included in that elite group after breaking Gordie Howe’s mark for goals in a series with nine against Colorado (a mark Franzen set in four games- Howe needed all seven to pot eight). The Stars do have an equalizer in Marty Turco who has been stellar in this post-season, but if Turco thought the Game Six barrage was tough, he should wait for the siege the Wings will put on him. Dallas has the resources to keep the series close, but it’s Detroit’s series to lose.

Red Wings 4, Stars 3


#2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #6 Philadelphia Flyers

Okay, so the Montreal Canadiens don’t have the same kind of firepower the Penguins have, the Flyers barely hung on to leads and suspect goaltending helped the Flyers’ goal-scoring against Montreal but make no mistake- Philadelphia deserves to be here and will give Pittsburgh a tougher test than some might realize. The Flyers- led by dynamic two-way forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, offensive dynamo Daniel Briérè and emerging power forward R.J. Umberger- have the wheels to match up with the Penguins’ forward cast led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa as well as the emerging Ryan Malone and the rejuvenated Petr Sykora. On defence, the Flyers’ defensive pairing of Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Cobourn has been a sparkplug with eleven assists between them (Timonen is tops with six) to counteract the Penguins’ Ryan Whitney who has five assists, while Pittsburgh’s normally sharpshooting defenceman Sergei Gonchar has gone cold with a single goal in this post-season. Not only that, neither team is great in the shutdown department, so expect the series to be free-flowing with a lot of lead changes. In goal, neither team has much of an edge- both Martin Biron and Marc-Andre Fleury are effective albeit not elite goaltenders, but Fleury does have the feather in his cap about being able to outplay New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist. Regardless, this is the Battle of Pennsylvania, and that by itself ensures that series is going to be close, as well as nasty- if Crosby and Malkin thought the Rangers were tough to handle wait until they see what the Flyers have brought for them: they’ll make Sean Avery & Co. seem like a cakewalk. This series will go down to the wire and it’s hard to predict a winner, but as I look into the orb, it faintly paints a picture of a Penguin, as Pittsburgh is playing a bit more cohesively and consistently than Philadelphia is and that is why they get the ultimate edge.

Penguins 4, Flyers 3


W1 Detroit vs. E2 Pittsburgh

This will be the most talked about Cup series for years, featuring two teams that play wide-open, free-flowing styles that promise a Final series that will be extremely entertaining to watch and extremely compelling. Will this be Sid the Kid’s first Cup of many? Will the Wings finally be rewarded for the organization’s consistent excellence, having been to the playoffs every year since 1991? Which goaltender will buckle under the expected siege both teams are capable of producing? The teams match up considerably well, as the Wings’ mobile and offensively gifted rearguards counterbalance Pittsburgh’s edge at forward, even though both sides have adequate weaponry in the other area as well. The decider, though, is in goal- Fleury has been better this playoff year than Osgood has, and that is what is ultimately going to decide the Stanley Cup Final: Fleury has consistently shown that no matter what the score he can pull out the Penguins, while Osgood has had to rely on his dynamic offence to build him a lead he can only barely hold. The Wings will make it close and interesting, but it’s Pittsburgh’s year to hoist the Cup.

Penguins 4, Wings 3