I learned a valuable lesson in the Conference semifinals: Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
It looked like the Detroit Red Wings were vulnerable heading into their Western Conference Championship series with the Chicago Blackhawks after a less than convincing performance against the eighth seed Anaheim Ducks in round two.
But despite several key injuries, the Red Wings found a way to not only win the series but also dominate the young Blackhawks, winning the series in five games to advance to their third Stanley Cup final of the decade.
Their opponents will be very familiar. For the second consecutive year, the Eastern Conference champions are the young and super-talented Pittsburgh Penguins, featuring two of the top players in hockey in captain Sidney Crosby and NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin.
The Penguins seem to be getting better and better as the playoffs roll along, sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals after a pair of emotional victories against archrivals the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals in rounds one and two.
The 2008 final resulted in a six-game win for the Red Wings, although the final tally flattered the Penguins in a series that never seemed to be in doubt. Detroit were simply too strong, too experienced, and much better than their young challengers.
But a year changes a lot. While the Red Wings are still regarded by many as the best team in hockey, most observers think that the 2009 edition of the National Hockey League's championship series will be much more competitive than last year's mismatch.
On the personal side, the 1-1 mark I posted in round three makes me 11-3 overall for the 2009 playoffs. Not too bad, but we need a big finish to cap a successful, if not profitable, playoff run.
Series O: Detroit Red Wings (2W) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (4E)
The teams spilt the regular season series, with each club winning on the other team's home ice.
Jordan Staal scored a hat trick in the third period and set up the winner in overtime in a dramatic 7-6 win for the Penguins at Joe Louis Arena in November, while on Feb. 8, former Pen Ty Conklin made 25 saves and Pavel Datsyuk scored twice in a 3-0 Red Wings win at Mellon Arena.
Both games were played before Dan Bylsma took over from Michel Therrien as Pittsburgh's head coach and before trade deadline deals that landed wingers Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz in Penguins uniforms.
Last year's Stanley Cup final is the only time the two clubs have met in the playoffs, giving Detroit a 1-0 series lead.
Stanley Cup Experience
Pittsburgh has five players on the roster with Stanley Cup rings, and most of the key players return from the team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008.
As the defending champions, it's not surprising that the Red Wings have 22 players on the roster with at least one Stanley Cup ring. Five Detroit players—Nick Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and Darren McCarty—have their names on the cup four times.
Pittsburgh's dynamic duo of Crosby and Malkin have raised their game to a new level in this year's run to the finals, and they share the NHL playoff scoring lead with 28 points. Crosby had seven points in the four-game sweep of the Hurricanes, while Malkin was even better with nine points in the four contests.
Wingers Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, and Ruslan Fedetenko were also solid contributors during the Carolina series. The veteran Guerin had two goals and three assists in the final three games against Carolina, while linemate Kunitz finally scored his first goal of the playoffs in game two to go along with his 11 assists.
Fedetenko scored key goals in games three and four for Pittsburgh, providing the same type of timely goal scoring he contributed for Tampa in their 2004 Cup run.
The Red Wings offensively have been led by forwards Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg. Franzen leads Detroit in points (19) and goals (10) through three rounds, although after a three-point explosion in game one was held to a single assist in games two through five.
Zetterberg, too, had big performances in games one and four and has dominated many games with his all-around play.
A revelation in round three was the play of center Valtteri Filppula, who stepped in to fill the void left by Hart Trophy candidate Pavel Datsyuk's injury and registered a point in all five games of the Chicago series.
His 14 points leave him tied for third in team scoring with Dan Cleary, who continued his amazing postseason with five goals in the Conference finals.
Finally, after a slow start, star winger Marian Hossa seems to be rounding into form and dominated games four and five of the last series.
While both teams have a healthy collection of scoring stars, perhaps the most consistently outstanding players for both teams during their respective runs to the Stanley Cup finals have been their goalies.
Both Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins and the Wings' Chris Osgood have been nothing short of spectacular at times during the '09 playoffs and have given their clubs a chance to win each and every night.
It's hard to find players who aren't contributing in a meaningful way when a team gets all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. Winger Petr Sykora of Pittsburgh, a star for the Penguins in last year's final, lost his lineup spot early in the run to Miroslav Satan and may only get a second chance in an injury situation.
With only six points in 17 games, third line center Jordan Staal's production is a little less than expected, but he does so many good things at both ends of the ice and on special teams that it's not a cause for concern.
For Detroit, super pest Tomas Holmstrom has been a little quieter than normal with only a single goal through three rounds, but he's still consistently able to cause havoc in front of opposing goalkeepers. Most of the other Red Wing disappointments are due to injury rather than poor play.
Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk vs. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin: Assuming Datsyuk is available, the strength of both teams is up the middle.
The Detroit duo has the experience and the better defensive game, while the Pittsburgh pair may have a slight edge in pure offensive talent. Zetterberg and Datsyuk usually take all the key face-offs for the Wings and are usually on the ice when the game is on the line.
The Penguins really seemed to gel when coach Dan Bylsma decided to double-shift Malkin and Crosby, and they've responded with strong play in all facets of the game.
In the playoffs, generally the team that wins is the team who gets the most from their star players. This series will be no exception. The winner of the Crosby-Malkin vs. Datsyuk-Zetterberg matchup will likely be drinking from Lord Stanley's mug in early June.
Injuries. The Red Wings were able to overcome the inexperienced Blackhawks despite injuries to key players, including Datsyuk, captain Nicklas Lidstrom, super checker Kris Draper, and young defenseman Jonathan Ericsson. The way the Penguins are playing, Detroit will need all hands on deck to win their second consecutive Cup.
The parallels to 1984, the last time there was a Stanley Cup rematch, are striking. That year, the up and coming Oilers, led by young superstars Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, beat the veteran defending champion Islanders to win their first of five Stanley Cups in seven seasons.
In the modern salary cap era, such a dynasty isn't likely, but there's a good chance history will repeat itself in 2009. The Penguins' maturation and the Red Wings' injury woes will mean that Sidney Crosby will be the first player to touch the Cup at the end of the series.
Take the Penguins in six.