This is it! The 2008 Stanley Cup Finals will commence Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena as the Eastern Conference Champion Pittsburgh Penguins take on the Western Conference Champion Detroit Red Wings. Finishing #1 in the league during the regular season with 115 points, Detroit has the home ice advantage over the #4 Penguins, who finished with 102-points. The Penguins advanced to the Cup Finals by sweeping the #13 Ottawa Senators, beating the #9 New York Rangers in 5-games, and dispatching the #11 Philadelphia Flyers in 5-games. The Red Wings advanced by beating the #17 Nashville Predators in 6-games, sweeping the #10 Colorado Avalanche, and finishing off the #8 Dallas Stars in 6-games. The Cup Finals promise to be a highly-skilled battle of youth versus experience between two-teams that haven’t met since the pre-season, and have never met in the post-season. So how do these two teams match up? Let’s take a look.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been virtually unstoppable in the playoffs having lost just 2-of-14 games. The Penguins continue to excel on the play of their special teams, their defense and stellar netminding. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been phenomenal in net in the playoffs, leading the league with a 0.938 save percentage, a 0.857 win percentage, and 3 shutouts. He is also 2nd in goals against average at 1.70 behind Detroit’s Chris Osgood (1.60). The Penguins lead the league in post-season goals per game at 3.64, as well as goals-against per game at just 1.86, and own the best power play of all remaining teams at 24.6%, second only to Calgary who was sent golfing in round 1. The Penguins’ penalty kill has been highly effective at 87.3%, and is tied with Detroit. The Penguins have found balanced scoring across all 4-lines with all 13 forwards recording at least one goal, and all 19 players scoring at least one point in 14 playoff games. The Penguins’ star players have lived up to their expectations as Sidney Crosby (4G, 17A) leads the league with 21-points, and Evgeni Malkin (9G, 10A) and Marian Hossa (9G, 10A) are not far behind with 19-points each. Of late, JOrdan Staal has come alive and has 7-points (6G, 1A) in 14-games. The only significant weakness that the Penguins have exhibited in the playoffs has been their performance in the face-off circle, where they trail the league at 46.7%. It hasn’t burned them yet, as they have won 12 of their 14 games and have outscored their opponents convincingly 51-26. They will now be facing off against a more evenly matched Detroit team, who is the league’s leader in the face-off circle at 55.7%.
The Detroit Red Wings dominated the league throughout the regular season and have carried that tradition forward into the post-season, dispatching their opponents by winning 12-of-16 games and outscoring them 55-31. The Red Wings have gotten balanced contributions from their lineup with 8-players scoring 10-points or more in the post-season, including 3 defensemen. Henrik Zetterburg (11G, 10A) is tied for the league lead with Sidney Crosby at 21-points and Pavel Datsyuk (9G, 10A) has also been hockey gold scoring 19-points. Both players are Selke Trophy finalists for this season’s top NHL defensive forward. In the post-season, Zetterberg is a +15 and Datyuk is a +12. Johan Franzen who has missed 5-games with concussion-symptoms still leads the league with 12-goals and will be a force to be reckoned with upon his return. He has been given the green light to return to practice, but is unlikely for game 1. The Red Wings also have 5-time Norris Tropy winner and 2008 finalist Niklas Lidstrom, who is paired with Brian Rafalski for a potent defensive combination. The Red Wings goaltending job was handed over to Chris Osgood after a 2-2 start by Dominik Hasek. Osgood leads the league with 1.60 goals against average over 12 starts, has a tremendous 10-2 record, and has been a major component of the Red Wings’ post-season success.
This series will be a battle of size and youth against experience. The average age of the Penguins is 4.4 years younger than the Detroit Red Wings. But along with the durability of youth comes inexperience. The Penguins roster contains just 3-Stanley Cup winners to include Gary Roberts (Calgary 88-89), Darryl Sydor (Dallas 98-99 and Tampa Bay 03-04) and Petr Sykora (New Jersey 99-00). The Red Wings have 10 players who have hoisted the Cup, some of them multiple times, to include Chris Chelios (2x), Pavel Datsyuk, Kris Draper (3x), Dominik Hasek, Tomas Holmstrom (3x), Niklas Lidstrom (3x), Kirk Maltby (3x), Darren McCarty (3x), Chris Osgood (2x) and Brian Rafalski (2x). One has to wonder which stokes the fire of desire more….knowing the exhiliration of having hoisted the Cup before, or the desire to achieve one’s dream for the first time? In addition to youth and experience, size may well become a factor. On average, the Penguins outweigh the Red Wings by 13lbs and are nearly 1 3/4″ taller. Height and weight could be an advantage for the Penguins if the game gets physical. It could also potentially be a liability in terms of speed and agility, however, I think the Penguins youth would likely trump any limitations there. Both teams are replete with skilled players, however, the Penguins have the edge in potential with 13 former 1st round draft picks in the lineup. The Red Wings, with no shortage of proven talent, are playing with 3 former first round picks.
The keys to this series is likely to be all about defensive play and goaltending. If Marc-Andre Fleury can continue to play with confidence of steel, the Red Wings could get frustrated and start to feel snake bit. He will need the help of the Penguins defense, though, to keep the traffic in front of him down to a minimum. They will need to prevent mad scrambles in front of the net, the only scenario where Fleury has shown any real signs of vulnerability in the post-season. The Penguins offense will also have to be masters of the backcheck to try and create turnovers and odd man chances. It seems unlikely that the Red Wings will be caught in many defensive lapses, however. On the other end of the ice, the Penguins will have to find a way to penetrate the Red Wings’ stingey defense and then solve a red hot Chris Osgood. The Penguins certainly have the firepower, skill and depth in Malkin, Crosby, Sykora, Malone and Hossa, but they have have to fight for every inch of ice against this defensively superior Red Wings team. The Penguins will need Jordan Staal to continue his offensive surge of late to add pressure to the Detroit defense, and will also need strong contributions from the energy line with Laraque and Ruutu. While the penalty kills are equally effective for both teams, the Penguins have a noticeable advantage on the powerplay (24.6% vs 21%). The Penguins may have to rely on their special teams to help crack the defensive advantage of the Red Wings. If the Penguins can use their speed and size to their advantage, they may be able to pull the Red Wings into penalty trouble and make them pay, although I will note that it would be uncharacteristic of the Red Wings to do so.
In summary, I believe that the Penguins will face their toughest challenge of the year in the Detroit Red Wings. They will need to find a way to put youth and size to their advantage by playing a physical game against the Red Wings to try and wear the “old guys” down and create opportunities. They will need to find ways to break through the stifling defense of the Detroit Red Wings, put a lot of pressure on Chris Osgood, and hopefully put a dent in his confidence. The Penguins underrated defense will have to continue to perform like they did in game 5 against the Flyers and find ways to stop Zetterberg and Datsyuk from getting quality opportunities on net.
This series could go either way, and I fully expect it to go the distance and be an exciting series. I believe that the skill levels and depth are fairly even, making it hard to see a clear advantage for either team. As such, I don’t see either team scoring a blowout in any game. However, with bias, I am going to choose youth and size as the discriminator and pick the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup in 7 hard fought games.
Image details: Philadelphia Flyers v Pittsburgh Penguins – Game Five served by picapp.com
Let’s Go Pens!