Friday, May 29, 2009

Into The Crystal Ball: 2009 Stanley Cup Final Edition

(W2) Detroit Red Wings vs. (E4) Pittsburgh Penguins

How They Got Here:

Detroit:

Def. Columbus 4-0

Def. Anaheim 4-3

Def. Chicago 4-1

Pittsburgh:

Def. Philadelphia 4-2

Def. Washington 4-3

Def. Carolina 4-0

THE SKINNY

This may be the first official rematch of a Stanley Cup Final since the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders hooked up for two straight years in 1983 and 1984 (the former being the Isles’ fourth-straight Cup, the latter being the Oilers’ first), but the Penguins and Wings enter this year’s Final with vastly different units. On the Detroit end, Marian Hossa switched to the Red Wings last summer after being one of Pittsburgh’s most dominant players in their 2008 playoff run, but his move to the Wings did not alter the team very much, as he fits very well in Detroit’s puck-possession system crafted by their under-appreciated coach Mike Babcock. In fact, his presence makes it better, because his “bull-in-a-china-shop” style makes the Wings more physical while sacrificing none of the skill or speed to do it. That is how the Wings have played in 2008-09, still playing a possession game (much like a soccer team) but crashing the net and the boards with more abandon than they used to, although few would consider physicality Detroit’s major asset. This is still a team built primarily on speed and passing as the presence of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski (alongside Hossa) on the top of the end of the depth chart would suggest, although Johan Franzen (greatly improved in these playoffs) and Tomas Holmstrom gives Detroit a valuable presence in front of goal and in the corners. In goal, Detroit still relies on Chris Osgood and, while he’s improved in these playoffs, he still is a weak spot being merely an average goaltender on a great team; although given Detroit’s defensive prowess, Osgood remains effective.

On Pittsburgh’s end, however, the Penguins have had to revamp almost the entire team, as the loss of Hossa and the under-appreciated Ryan Malone last summer forced the Penguins to retool the core of their team past Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Pittsburgh initially thought Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko would suffice, but by the trade deadline it became apparent that they wouldn’t, so Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz were acquired, at the cost of Ryan Whitney. Whitney’s loss means the Penguins’ defence has lost some mobility, but Kris Letang’s development has compensated for that and they still have the booming shot of Sergei Gonchar to call upon. Their coach is also different, as gone is Michel Therrien and in is former Los Angeles King and Penguin Dan Bylsma, whose laid back style represented a change of pace from the strict, authoritarian Therrien. Bylsma already established himself as the better coach, as Pittsburgh’s horrible slump to start 2008-09 confirmed that in 2007-08 the team won in spite of Therrien, while Bylsma effectively brought together the collection of players into an effective, coherent unit. They are still the explosive bunch of last season, but this time they’re playing a lot looser, which is a credit to their coach. Lastly, the Penguins’ goaltender is still Marc-Andre Fleury, who has added a game-stealing element to his game and thus plays with more confidence than the 2008 version did. He’s still not at the elite level though, being out of position far too much.

HOW PITTSBURGH WINS

It’s a cliché, but the Penguins’ best players have to be their best players. That means Crosby and Malkin have to be at their other-worldly best for Pittsburgh to have any chance of defeating Detroit, because the Wings’ forwards are deeper than the Penguins so their top guns can be afforded an off-night while Crosby and Malkin can’t be. They also have to be smart with the puck and make sure they have enough people behind it, because the Wings have the firepower to capitalize on any mistakes. Pittsburgh did have success against Carolina collapsing defensively in front of the net, so Holmstrom and Franzen may be neutralized, but they will have to respect the shot from the point, because Lidstrom and Rafalski are miles ahead of any defenceman they have faced so far this post-season. The Penguins can expect to win the goaltender battle, but Fleury may have to win it by a larger margin if Pittsburgh is to have a chance at series victory.

HOW DETROIT WINS

The puck possession game needs to be at the top of its game for Detroit to win. So far, the Wings have managed to combine their offensive dynamism with a smart, positionally sound defensive game, but restricting the time and space for Crosby and Malkin is hard to do since both are so adept at creating it (witness Malkin’s gorgeous backhand flip against Carolina in Game 2 of the East Final). Simply put, they have to do it, no matter how Herculean that task will be. Franzen and Holmstrom will have to be at their screening best because that will allow the cannons in the form of Lidstrom and Rafalski to operate at their best, and it’s vital that both of them get going early in the series because that will force Pittsburgh to open up the front of the net a little to defend against the point shot. The Wings also have to work the corners (especially with Hossa and Franzen), since Pittsburgh have had issues down low all playoff long. They also cannot be lulled into a false sense of complacency- yes, they won last year, but they can’t think that because they did win last year they will this year, as the Penguins are no longer “too young” to handle the pressure. Osgood may also have to steal a game or two, since the presence of Crosby and Malkin on the other side means that there’s no score Pittsburgh doesn’t believe it can’t overcome.

WHO WILL WIN

Don’t expect it to go seven. Or six. Or maybe even five. If this were an election, this would be a landslide. Yes, the Penguins have shown that past Crosby and Malkin on the depth chart they are still effective, but the Wings are considerably deeper and thus will be a handful for the Pittsburgh defence to handle. Detroit also has elite defencemen to call on their own, so the Penguins’ collapsing defensive style won’t be as effective as it was earlier in the playoffs when they faced against- at best- defencemen who were merely “very good”. The Wings are also more physical than they were last year, but the puck-possession game is still in swing, meaning Detroit can both dominate down low (Pittsburgh’s Achilles’ Heel) and control the puck better than they did last year, so “good luck Pittsburgh in getting the puck (let alone getting it back, because they might never have it)”. Crosby and Malkin will keep the games close, but alone they won’t be able to keep up with Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Hossa, Franzen, Holmstrom, Lidstrom and Rafalski (among others) who are just going to wear them down. Last year’s Penguins had the depth to make it a series and they did- this year’s Penguins will show that Pittsburgh is just lucky to be in the Final, because they will truly need depth if they are to have any chance of being real Cup contenders in the future. Detroit 4, Pittsburgh 1.

-DG

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-DG

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