On the eve before Game 1 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, it's all the rage for team boosters to write fluff pieces about "their" team (it's funny how the finals always tends to warrant the XXL bandwagons, no?)
Endless chewing gum pieces are written, by professional and amateur writers alike, trying to mask rah-rah jangoism as objective reporting, making a headache and a half for those starving for some sort of respite from 'homer' writers.
Well, this is probably as close as you're gonna get,(and it ain't attempting to be objective) cos frankly, I dislike one team, and flat out hate the other.
I dislike Pittsburgh as I feel they are a stirling example of how mediocrity pays off, and to this day, I still maintain that the "Crosby Sweepstakes" were rigged by the NHL, but that's a rant for another day...
I hate Detroit because I feel they are the UNC of hockey. They attract many suitors with their 'storied past', put a decent team on the ice and kill in the weakest division in the league (32 games a year against Chicago, St. Louis and Columbus would help any teams record, though I did take pleasure in seeing them post a pathetic .500 division record this year, could this signal a changing of the guards in the Central?Again, a rant for another time).
So on Saturday evening, we're looking at a modern day David and Goliath...one clear cut underdog and one odds-on favourite. So enough of why I dislike these teams, let's break it down.
Detroit is a phenomenal breakout team, Mike Babcock has instructed his boys well in how to overwhelm the opposition in the neutral/attacking zone, and with 2-way specialists like Draper, Maltby and McCarty,as well as Zetterberg's surprising new friendship with the other side of the blueline make for an even stronger case.
Pittsburgh is primarily an offensive team, noone can deny that, and their best 2 way player and team vet Gary Roberts is sitting out Game 1, is this a recipe for disaster? Not on your life.
Anyone who thinks Pittsburgh wasn't watching Detroit the last 2 rounds is certainly in need of a head check. There wasn't much info anyone could gather from the Colorado series except how quick Detroit fans are to pat themselves on the back for sweeping a team missing 90% of their starpower, however the Dallas series was a wealth of valuable information...
Firstly, Dallas inadvertently found an achilles' heel with their sluggish play in Game 3. That being that a proper mix of physical play and a less anxious forecheck are something the Wings have had an issue with the last 3 years.
Detroit is an opportunistic team that gets 95% of it's goal production from forcing opponents into making bad decisions on and off the puck (think Zetterberg's SH breakaway goal in Game 6, or ANY goal Franzen/Holmstrom/Samuellsson have ever scored in their careers).
Dave Tippett recognized this early in Game 4 and adjusted the standard Dallas 2-1-2 strategy to a modified 1-2-2.
The problem in the first 3 games was that Dallas would send 2 forwards in deep to pressure the puck carrier, staggered by about 10-12 feet, leaving one forward in the neutral zone and the 2 defenseman at the blue line. Detroit countered this by keeping one forward circling near their blue line and the other forward either swooped back behind the net to gain momentum up the opposite wing or cutting through the slot to split the forecheckers in hopes one would bite and try to tail him. The end result if it worked were 3 VERY spaced out forecheckers and scads of room for a fast break, or as I like to call it, the Joe Louis Jumble.
By switching to a lone forechecker, they were able to keep 2 forwards posted staggered at the blue and red lines, meaning the striding decoy can't skate far without stretching the triangle too far and risking a home run pass being picked up by an alert forward. That drastically reduced the sloppy 2-on-1 chances that the Wings have made famous. Simply put, no action, no reaction.
So where does Pittsburgh fit into this strategy?
Well, the term is 'standing on the shoulders of giants'. Furthering one's own work by way of benefitting from the ability to dissect where others have failed, and Dallas ensured that games 4 and 5 were classroom worthy.
Dallas was only effective in a very limited sense because of one simple reason:Speed. Detroits fast breaks worked so well against Dallas, Colorado and Nashville because all 3 teams are anything but fleet-footed. Of the 3 teams, Dallas had the most speed with Richards, Hagman, Lundqvist and Modano to an extent, HOWEVER, they did not have any lines with 3 top speed threats, and it was always the slowest guy who provided the seam the Wings needed.
Pittsburgh has speed in spades, with Crosby, Malkin, Hossa, Staal, Sykora, Whitney, Malone and Kennedy all able to turn heads with their footwork to varying degrees. Man-on-man coverage works just slightly better when your boys can catch their boys...who'd have thunk it?
Goaltending in my opinion favours Pittsburgh for the fact that Fleury has stood on his head this post-season, in many instances being the sole reason the Pens stole certain games. Ditching the bright yellow pads and gloves dirtied by World Junior heartache seems to have exorcised the demons haunting the kid once thought to be a lost cause for the Pens, watching the resiliency of this kid in pulling himself back from a high ankle sprain when the Pens starting job all but seemed to belong to Ty Conklin in my opinion was an effort worthy of the Masterton.
Osgood has won a Cup with Detroit before yes, but that should not be confused with Osgood winning Detroit the Cup. I personally feel that Detroit hasn't had a 'good' goaltender since Tim Cheveldae befuddlingly pulled together 3 impressive seasons between 90/91 and 92/93 where he became 'the hardest working man in pro hockey'. Since then, Vernon, Osgood, Legace, Cujo and Hasek have all benefitted from a severe buckling down in their own end and have shown their mediocrity on teams with a less strigent defensive philosophy.
Osgood however, in my opinion, is the cream of the crop as far as the afforementioned are concerned. He's got better fundamentals and speed than Hasek (though that's not hard these days, or in the case of fundamentals, ever), better reflexes than Vernon and Legace, and is better positionally than Cujo. He's a weak puckhandler, but with Nick Lidstrom on your team, it's a moot point.
If there's a team who can 'part the Red sea' with their counter-attack, Pittsburgh is the clear choice, so they will make Osgood sing for his supper undoubtedly.
Defensively, Detroit has the edge with the Norris hog Lidstrom, as well as Kronwall adding a little more physical emphasis. Gonchar is really the only blueline standout on Pittsburgh, though Hal Gill will gladly take housekeeping duties to rid Fleury's field of vision of all things red and white except the Canadian flag at the far end of the rink.
As for non-issues in this series, Johan Franzen is name number one on that list.
After a fortuitous series against Colorado, Franzen kept momentum going up against Dallas, only to exit with 'concussion like symptoms' and will probably miss Game 1. He's received too much press, as has crease crowder Mikael Samuelsson and wunderkind Jiri Hudler for the Pens not to have taken notice
For the Wings to win, they'll have to prey on the Pens youth and immaturity in prodding them into stupid penalties, a task uberpests Draper and McCarty are no strangers to. Their powerplay versus a spaced out Pens PK unit will provide the seams they need to generate opportunities. Crashing Fleury will most likely prove ineffective as he has composure far beyond his years and seems to forever have that huge grin visible under his mask
For the Pens to win, they need to learn from Dallas' mistakes and let their speed on both sides of the puck dictate the flow of the game. For my money, Crosby, Malkin and Hossa are better than Datsyuk, Zetterberg and any random Swede anyday, so they can definitely roll lines in an effective way to keep the Wings guessing and pepper Osgood with quality shots.
It is my opinion that Pittsburgh can take this series in 6 games because of one simple reason, and that is attitude. The Penguins have a team harmony that is impressive in any sport and/or league, they are loose and are doing what should be happening to a team in their position, they're having fun. Levity is necessary in the pressure cooker of the NHL Playoffs, and the team confident enough to laugh about their younger stars horrendous attempts at playoff beards illustrates a comraderie I have never really felt from Detroit.
The 'March of the Penguins' will continue for at least 4 more games, it's David versus Goliath, can the Pens part the Red sea? Can the Wings put the cap on the Pens?
Choose whatever cute cliche or pop culture reference you think applies, but in its simplest terms, tomorrow is the beginning of the end.
On the Bleacher Report, I'm Andrew Castaneda with a special tip of the hat to my newfound anti-fan club of 1 (you know who you are), keep chirping buddy, you're bound to make a valid point one of these days!
With files from CBC.ca, TSN, The Hockey News and www.goaliesarchive.com.