Thursday, June 11, 2009

Game 7 Looms in Motown

The NHL got its wish this spring, as after a terrific playoff run, for the fifth time since 2001, its ultimate prize will go down to a deciding Game 7 Friday night at Joe Louis Arena.

Both the Red Wings and Penguins have won 15 games this spring, and one is heading for a summer with the Stanley Cup, the other thinking of what might have been with a little more effort in Game 7.

But this series has had some strange twists and turns, with the home team capturing each of the first six games for the first time since Anaheim-New Jersey in 2003, and a marked difference in effort in each building.

The odds certainly don't favor the Penguins heading into the showdown, as road teams are just 2-12 in Cup-deciding Game 7s, and the Pens are 0-3 at the Joe this spring and outscored 11-2 in those contests.

In addition, the last four teams who were able to force a Game 7 after fighting off elimination at home in Game 6 (the 1987 Flyers, 1994 Canucks, 2003 Mighty Ducks and 2006 Oilers) all met the same fate in Game 7. The last road team to win a Game 7 was the 1971 Canadiens, and so the Penguins will be looking to buck a major statistical trend with a win Friday night.

Detroit's core also has been adept at finishing out series in seven games, winning its last three, including a Game 7 triumph against the Ducks in round two. The last time the Wings lost a deciding game at home was in 1994, when Arturs Irbe and the Sharks stunned the hockey world with a win in the first round.

This year, the Red Wings also have been excellent at home, going 10-1 at home in the playoffs, with their only setback at Joe Louis Arena being a triple-overtime loss to Anaheim in Game 2.

But, of course, despite the odds heavily favoring Detroit, the beauty of Game 7s is that it only takes a bounce, a hot goaltender or some other event that can decide the series.

The Penguins certainly have shown their mettle as well, having won a Game 7 on the road already this season in Washington, and strangely enough, Pittsburgh has won four Game 7s in a row away from home ice, dating back to 1975.

This year's series has been an interesting one, with twists and turns and both teams at times looking frustrated and other times looking unbeatable. There has been little ebb and flow between games, with three radically different games occuring after the series started to shif venues between each contest.

Both goaltenders have looked good at times, other times, not so much. While Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have shone this spring, they also have been absent at times in this series, and the Red Wings still need Marian Hossa - who of course spurned the Pens' long-term contract for a shot at a Cup with Detroit - to make his impact felt in this series.

One interesting aspect of the deciding game is there's a good chance that Evgeni Malkin will earn the Conn Smythe Trophy as a playoff MVP - win or lose. While it would have been difficult to claim the award in a six-game loss, it's not unprecedented for a played on a losing team to earn the award in a seven-game tilt. Chris Osgood or Henrik Zetterberg might win it for the Red Wings if Detroit pulls out the win, but leading the playoffs with 35 points (14 goals, 21 assists) might tilt the voting Malkin's way unless one of those two Wings players decides Game 7.

While the Penguins certainly have managed to fight back in this series, the Game 7 usually favors the stronger team in the Finals, as with not another series to look forward to as you sometimes get in the earlier rounds, the cream usually rises to the top in the Finals.

Detroit has been one of the best teams in the NHL this season, fighting the Sharks for home-ice throughout the playoffs and then receiving it when San Jose was stunned by the Ducks.

They hold an edge over the Pens in almost every category, and unless Crosby and Malkin are able to get room they haven't really gotten in this Stanley Cup Finals so far and are able to make a difference, the Wings will earn a chance to skate the Stanley Cup at home this spring.

Look for a spirited effort by both teams, but the Wings to prevail, pulling away in the third period to earn the franchise's 12th Stanley Cup.

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