Thursday, May 28, 2009

Stanley Cup Preview

After the Red Wings hoisted the Stanley Cup at Mellon Arena last June, the Penguins will get a chance for revenge this spring as for the first time in 24 years, a Stanley Cup rematch is on tap when Detroit and Pittsburgh will play for the title again.

The Penguins come into this year's final after looking like they might miss the playoffs for most of the campaign, but a strong kick to end the season and the Pens winning eight of their last nine playoff games puts them back to where they were before as the Eastern Conference champions.

On the other side, Detroit actually may have done themselves a disservice by finishing off Chicago so quickly, as had it advanced with a win Saturday, the Red Wings would have had six days to recover and start the Finals after getting a chance to get healthier with Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk out for the final two games of the Chicago series with injuries.

Despite all that, the Red Wings will give the Penguins something they haven't seen so far this spring - a solid defensive club that is capable of reducing the ample space that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin enjoyed for the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Detroit is also more potent offensively than any team that the Pens have faced all spring, scoring 23 more goals this season than the Capitals and certainly will put Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh blueline to the test. The Pens certainly had problems containing Washington at times, and the Red Wings also have a better backline to reduce the scoring chances they give up.

The two netminders certainly could tilt the series, as both have looked good - and both have looked very poor - this season. Fleury, despite his victories, still has a 2.62 goals-against and a .906 save percentage and has given up some dangerous rebounds during the playoffs. Chris Osgood, who nearly lost his starting role this season, has been good in the playoffs, has been good in the postseason, with a second-best 2.06 goals-against and a .925 save percentage to boot, although part of that is due to the Red Wings limiting good chances against the goaltender.

Besides the revenge angle, there is another juicy subplot this time around, as Marian Hossa, who helped the Penguins reach the Finals last year after being acquired from Atlanta at the trade deadline, but spurned the team to try to win a Cup in Detroit this season, now will have the spotlight on him as he battles his old team for a chance to win a ring.

The series also takes a strange scheduling twist this season, as with the short rest for both teams despite winning their conference finals in rapid fashion, the teams play back-to-back nights over the weekend in Detroit - which could take its toll on the Red Wings who are banged-up at the moment.

Still, the Red Wings will pose a very different challenge for the Penguins, as they have the capability to take away the space that Crosby and Malkin have enjoyed so far this spring, and it will be up to some of the other Pens to pick up the slack if their scoring drops off. It's not unlike two years ago when the Senators reached the Stanley Cup Finals after tremendous first three rounds thanks to stellar outputs by Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, Ottawa had trouble adapting to the Ducks' more defensive style and got bounced out in five games.

The Red Wings faced a good offensive club in Chicago, and despite missing some key players in the series, still only allowed 10 goals in five games against a team that came into the series averaging well over three goals per game in the playoffs. The Penguins certainly have been potent this spring, averaging 3.82 goals per game so far, but now they face a team that has allowed just 2.12 in the playoffs.

The Penguins also will have to be much better defensively, as they have allowed 2.72 goals-per-game in the playoffs, only good enough for eighth among playoff teams, and they will be facing a team nearly as potent as the Penguins have been this postseason and one that is peppering opposing keepers with nearly 40 shots per contest.

Unless the injuries totally derail the Red Wings, as good as the Penguins have been in the last couple of weeks, it's going to be tough to deny Detroit their second straight Stanley Cup title. Pittsburgh will have to prove they can adapt to fewer scoring chances and also capitalize on their opportunities and limit the Red Wings behind a defense that showed some leaks in the Washington series.

After the Red Wings captured last year's title in six games, that's probably an appropriate conclusion to this year's playoffs, with Detroit claiming the Stanley Cup again on Mellon Arena ice.

Prediction: Detroit in six. (11-3 in postseason)

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