Just like last season the NHL is getting the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals. This matchup should generate good television ratings for the league (Game 1 is on NBC on Saturday night and Game 2 is on Sunday night on NBC) and from a publicity standpoint, the only thing that might have gotten more viewers would be if the Washington Capitals had made into the finals simply because of the Alexander Ovechkin factor. The Great #8 is the most popular player in the league, and the best, in my opinion. But the NHL still has to be happy because Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins are the second and third most marketable players in the league right now because of their incredible skill level. Crosby and Malkin are outstanding and are right there with Ovechkin. Unfortunately for the Great #8 both of those guys are on the same team and Ovechkin was not able to beat those two guys alone in the second round in a series that will be talked about for several years, or at least until those two teams likely meet again in next year’s post-season.
Now on to the series and the big talk today was about the NHL schedule change. Thanks to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun for the following on that topic:
With just two full days to recharge before the Stanley Cup finals begin, the injury-riddled Detroit Red Wings were not hiding their feelings about the finals schedule being moved up.
“We’re not happy, I have to be honest,” Wings GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com from his office Thursday. “We’re disappointed that we haven’t had an extra day’s rest. It’s a double-whammy, the quick turnaround and back-to-back games [to open the finals]. We’re disappointed because we think when you win a series in five games or less, that you have earned an opportunity to have a few more days of rest.
“But at the same time, we understand and we’re not going to dwell on it. Because we don’t want to lose our focus with the job at hand. It is what it is. Let’s play.”
The NHL originally put out a release saying the finals would begin June 5 unless both conference finals were sweeps and then changed its mind mid-stream when it realized a nine-day break would be a killer for fan interest.
Starting the series with back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday and having three games in four nights, when you factor in Game 3 Tuesday in Pittsburgh, will be a tough challenge for the beat-up Red Wings.
As I blogged last night, the schedule change definitely favors Pittsburgh due to some of the key injuries that the Red Wings currently are dealing with in Nicklas Lidstrom (lower body injury), Pavel Datsyuk (foot injury), Jonathan Ericsson (appendectomy), and Kris Draper (groin).
Anyways, time to start handicapping this match-up.
Red Wings offense vs. Penguins Defense
Pittsburgh’s defense has played extremely well in the post season and basically ever since Coach Dan Bylsma took over this team in February. Brooks Orpik, Hal Gill, and Rob Scuderi are very good in their own zone and can play physical. Gill is a little slow but he makes up for some of that with his size and reach. Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang are the two primary offensive weapons from the blue line and both can skate and shoot the puck. Gonchar can be a defensive liability if pressured but so far he hasn’t been tested by the Eastern Conference opponents he’s faced. He still is not 100% as a result of the Ovechkin knee to knee hit he sustained in game four of that series. Mark Eaton and Phillipe Boucher round out the Pittsburgh defensive group as Bylsma has had alot of success dressing seven defenseman in the post season.
The Red Wings are loaded up front and this group controls the puck and attacks the net like no other team in the league. Pittsburgh has not had to face a group of forwards such as Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Dan Cleary, and Jiri Hudler who aren’t afraid to go to the front of the net and do the dirty work. Cleary had 5 goals in the Western Conference Finals doing just that. Detroit also has great skill to go with those guys who crash the net in Henrik Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Marian Hossa (who played for the Penguins in a losing cause last season and was all over the ice in the final game of the Blackhawks series Wednesday night), Mikael Samuelsson, and Valteri Fillpula.
Penguins Offense vs. Red Wings Defense
Detroit is banged up on defense with Lidstrom hurting but word today is he will play in game one on Saturday night. #5 plays close to 30 minutes a night as does blue line partner Brian Rafalski. Both of those guys are great with the puck and are a threat to score at any time. Brad Stuart and Nicklas Kronwall are very good physical defensemen and Kronwall will lay out opposing forwards with big hits if they don’t keep their head up (just ask Chicago’s Martin Havlat). After that the troops get thin with Brett Lebda as the fifth defensemen and then Ericsson (if he is healthy enough). Rounding out the blue line are Derek Meech and the amazing 47 year old Chris Chelios, who played a good game five against the Hawks with both Lidstrom and Ericsson out of the lineup.
Because of Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins can throw two potent lines at an opposition forcing the other coaching staff to pick their poison with their best defensive pair. #87 is in the driver’s seat for the Conn Smythe Award (NHL’s playoff MVP) and ever since Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin arrived at trade deadline time his game has gone to another level. Malkin has been flanked successfully by Ruslan Fedotenko (2004 Stanley Cup winner with Tampa) and Maxime Talbot. These three have been together since the Caps series and have been a force on the ice. The third line is another good one with Jordan Staal centering the pesky, hard working pair of Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Miroslav Satan and Craig Adams have been the 10th and 11th forwards and have chipped in nicely.
It is Detroit’s Chris Osgood (two Stanley Cups as a starter) vs. Marc-Andre Fleury (lost in last season’s Stanley Cup Finals). Osgood is the underrated veteran who has been there while Fleury has been fortunate to be protected by a good defense and system throughout the post season. Both of these goalies are about to face their TOUGHEST opponents of the playoffs.
Dan Bylsma took over the Penguins in February after head coaching in the AHL in just his first season. At 38, he is the youngest head coach in the NHL. On the other hand, Mike Babcock has been coaching teams in the NHL for six seasons. The Penguins have won primarily on talent so far in these playoffs and solid coaching will be needed to beat the smart and efficient Red Wings. Their isn’t much comparison here and the edge goes big time to Detroit.
Pittsburgh has an edge as the less banged up team plus they are really hungry for the Cup after losing last season. Detroit has the experience of being there before plus home ice advantage.
I have been on the Detroit bandwagon all year long and am not jumping off now! If Lidstrom is healthy then I think the Red Wings win this series in six games. If Lidstrom isn’t right then this thing goes seven games but I still see Detroit winning. I’m not saying Pittsburgh can’t win, because the way Crosby and Malkin are playing they can beat anyone, but I think their rookie coach hurts them so a team that knows how to score the ugly goals in Detroit, is too much for Pittsburgh to handle.
[Note: My prediction record in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs is 11-3 (lost with just San Jose in the first round, Vancouver and Boston in the second round, and was successful in picking both Detroit and Pittsburgh in the Conference Finals).]