I know, I know. "When you assume, you..blah, blah, blah"
Both Conference Finals are just about over. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings both hold commanding 3-1 series leads. So I thought I'd get the jump here and go ahead with my Finals breakdown and prediction.
Both teams are pretty evenly matched overall, but we'll go over offense, defense, goaltending and special teams. We'll also touch on a few key points in the upcoming series.
Offense: Offensively, both teams are very dangerous.
The Penguins are deep with Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Ryan Malone, Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis, not to mention contributions from the point through Kris Letang, Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar.
The Wings answer with Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom and the surprising Johan Franzen. They also have Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall.
In my mind, the Pens have more depth here and their overall youth provides fresher legs. Not that age has seemed like an issue to the Red Wings, who have steam-rolled their opponents thus far.
Edge: Penguins by a hair.
Defense: The Penguins have been a solid defensive team all year, much better than most expected them to be.
With a good, balanced core featuring Letang, Gonchar, Whitney and the physical Brooks Orpik, this group is equipped to take on anyone. But the experience is lacking as Gonchar is the only member of the unit with significant playoff experience outside of this season.
The Wings are deep and effective on the blue line. Future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom is enough to tip the scales. Niklas Kronwall, Brian Rafalski and the ageless Chris Chelios have playoff experience and continue to contribute. These guys know what to expect and how to get it done.
Edge: Red Wings
Goaltending: This is one of the more even battles.
Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury is the more talented and, obviously, younger of the two. He's been wonderful in the playoffs thus far, leading with 11 wins and posting a sparkling 1.82 goals against average. The biggest issue is experience.
Chris Osgood, meanwhile, has been doing more than most expected from him since taking over for the struggling Dominik Hasek. "Ozzy" has won 9 of 10 starts with a league best 1.62 G.A.A. More importantly, he's been here before, having two Cup victories to his credit.
Edge: Even. Fleury's talent and Osgood's experience cancel each other out.
Special Teams: Both have extremely potent powerplays.
Pittsburgh has been slightly more efficient, connecting for the same amount of goals (14) as Detroit, with 10 less opportunities.
Where the battle could be won is on the penalty kill. Pittsburgh boasts the 2nd best penalty kill in the playoffs with Detroit coming in at #4. The Pens have the x-factor in short-handed specialist Jordan Staal.
Edge: Pens thanks to Staal.
Now, as for the key match-ups in the series:
Battle of the Big Two's: This is possibly the most intriguing part of the Finals.
The duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will face off against Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Both dynamic duos have combined for 37 points in the playoffs, although Crosby & Malkin have done it in one less game.
Malkin is the only one with a true physical game, though Crosby is certainly not afraid to mix things up. Malkin will need to set the tempo and show that he is going to be the dominating factor.
As for Detroit's pair, they have uncanny timing and awareness. If they can get going in Pittsburgh's end, it could be a long series for the Pens defensively.
Youth vs Experience: I touched on it a bit already, but the Fleury-Osgood match up is a bit intriguing.
Fleury is clearly the more talented of the two and he has really caught fire in the playoffs. At 23 years old, his best days are still clearly ahead of him despite such a great performance this year.
Osgood, however, has been here before several times and not only knows what to expect but how to get through it. He is less likely to take a bad goal or bad loss hard and will move on accordingly. Fleury could possibly be shaken, though.
The goaltender that steps up will give their team a great shot at winning.
Getting Defensive: The Penguins were a surprisingly good defensive team during the regular season and have a good, mobile and physical corps of defensemen. But that experience thing rears its head again. Only Sergei Gonchar has any real experience outside of this season and last season's loss to Ottawa.
The Red Wings are usually a stout team defensively and this season is no different.
Lidstrom is the catalyst. He controls everything around him with ease. Rafalski has two Stanley Cups. Chelios is 140 years old. These three guys will help guide the youngsters and will be a calming presence.
Onto predictions. Both teams are evenly matched with the biggest factor looking like experience.
If the young Pens can get going early, the experience won't become a factor.
If the Wings jump out and take command early on, the kids will need to find a way to fight through it and succeed.
Prediction: Penguins in 7.
As far as the Conn Smythe, it seems like a four-horse race. With all due respect to Franzen, both dynamic duos have been the key. I see Malkin using this as a platform to take his place as the game's best player, even if Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby happen to play the same game.
Conn Smythe Winner: Evgeni Malkin
This is all assuming I didn't jinx one of the two teams and we don't see a Boston Red Sox- Esq comeback. And if I do end up jinxing one of the two teams, good luck finding me. I'll be hiding out Bin Laden-style.
See you for the Finals.
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