It’s amusing reading some of the things that have made their way to the Internet in the many days off leading up to the start of the Stanley Cup Finals between Detroit and Pittsburgh.
One of the more amusing things I caught stemmed from something that was summed up in the New York Times. In this story, it mentions how Herr Bettman actually jumped the gun to address something that was mostly being wondered about loudly in the blogosphere and amongst fans – that the league was rooting hard for and potentially conspiring in favor of a Detroit vs. Pittsburgh matchup.
As you’d know if you’ve read here all season long, I’ve made it a point to stress that Bettman’s leadership is so inept that he’d find a way to screw up instant pudding. Bettman is the kind of guy you can’t tell there’s a surprise birthday party coming up for a friend because he’d be the first one to ruin the entire thing by asking the person whose party it is if they’re going.
There’s no way in hell you can convince me that Gary Bettman was actively rooting for a Stanley Cup Finals that involved all of ZERO teams that have risen up from the Ziegler/Bettman Expansion Blunder Circus. This is the first Finals since 1998 (Detroit vs. Washington) that involves a Finals matchup involving neither a relocated or expansion team. You think this doesn’t bother Bettman? Go back and look at his Cup presentations at the end of the last three Cup Finals in Anaheim, Raleigh, NC and Tampa, Florida. In fact, I’ll save you the time and just present you his script right now.
“It sure looks like hockey is a success here in (Insert Name of Cup Winning City/State)! The fans here in (City/State name) have proven the skeptics wrong and hockey is now an huge success here in (City/State name). (Team Captain) come get your Stanley Cup!”
See? Same crap, different year.
This year, regardless of the winner, he’ll be forced to talk about such taboo things as: Tradition! Long time fans! Having existed for more than 10 years in a northern market! All of these things defy Herr Bettman’s plan of riding the coattails of seeping into a market that’s already been taken over by other sports (college basketball and football) and semi-sports (NASCAR).
It’s incredible to think that there are many people out there who think Bettman could trip and fall into rigging something to go his way when it’s been more than evident he despises the roots of the NHL and pisses on tradition whenever he’s given the opportunity.
This doesn’t speak so much to the foolishness of the everyday hockey consumer and writer and reporter but to the general ignorance suffered by the sports writers at the local rag who, likely, drew the short straw and are being asked/made to write about a sport they don’t understand nor care about in anyway. Haven’t seen it yet? Just wait – and in fact, the best source for uneducated material is ESPN. Hearing folks like Jay Mariotti on Around the Horn wax poetic on hockey ought to be the highest of high entertainment and ignorance.
What’s important here is that, all of Bettman’s ineptitude and NHL referee ineptitude aside, the game I grew up watching, loving, and adoring is back. Neither of these teams should bore us. Neither of these teams should play some foolish nonsensical garbage sit-on-it hockey. If anyone is going to get critical of these teams it’ll be for these reasons:
The Red Wings puck-control play, when they’re clicking, can seem unfair because they pass so well and essentially play keep-away. The answer to this, of course, is to forecheck the hell out of them. The Penguins have been somewhat guilty of packing in the defense at times but given how scoring inept the teams they’ve dealt with in the playoffs up to this point, it may have only seemed that way. To that end, Pittsburgh will be dealing with a team that scores much better than any of the teams they’ve played this year, same can be said of what Detroit will be dealing with as well, especially now that Crosby, Malkin and Hossa are all dealing.
That said, the extended layoff that Herr Bettman arranged for (that also pits the start of the Finals up directly against the NBA Eastern Conference Finals…in the same city on the same nights) may have benefitted Detroit more than anyone. Detroit’s top goal scorer Johan Franzen, who has been out since early in the Dallas series with a somewhat cryptic ailment being attributed to post-concussion syndrome, was/is a question for Game 1 of the Finals. He apparently skated and practiced on Thursday which points to him suiting up in Game 1.
The way Franzen fully frustrated Jose Theodore in the Conference Semifinals by scoring at will seemed to point the Conn Smythe his way should Detroit win it all but after sitting out most of the Conference Finals and coach Mike Babcock being even more secretive about Franzen’s status leaves everyone wondering both what Franzen’s issue is and when he’d be returning, if at all. If he is playing and seeing substantial minutes…Pittsburgh’s defensive assignment got that much harder in having to deal with not just Holmstrom parking in front of Marc-Andre Fleury but also Franzen. Franzen suiting up also means that Dan Cleary gets to slide down to the third line where he too can camp out in front. Provided there aren’t more phantom interference calls and the Red Wings can assuredly stay out of the crease, Pittsburgh will have to work hard down low and try to move these guys around while their other two wingers and defensemen whirl around making things very difficult.
Pittsburgh’s plan of attack here has to be to push, pressure and force the issue. Make Detroit get back on their heels and defend, to throw the puck at the net and keep control of it themselves. Sounds like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth here, I know, but Dallas and Nashville both saw their greatest success against Detroit when they forced the issue. While Nashville’s success almost has to be given an asterisk since that came against current bench jockey goaltender Dominik Hasek, the fact is they went after Detroit to score.
If Pittsburgh does indeed decide to pile into their zone defensively and rely on blocking shots and trying to stop Detroit at the blueline…they’re going to spend a lot of time waiting for Detroit to just give up the puck to them on a dump in or turnover. This series won’t last quite so long.
Lots of folks want to try to find a hole with either of the goaltenders. Don’t bother – they’re both playing solid and they’re both playing with house money considering what the opinions of both Chris Osgood and Marc-Andre Fleury were coming into the playoffs. Osgood was the backup behind the guy that chased him out of a job years ago. Fleury was coming off an injury as well as a history for coming up short on the spot and having not played very well at all earlier in the year, sitting for a while behind the at the time red-hot Ty Conklin. Both have emerged, both have been tested and both are now standing at the top of the heap. Don’t sweat these guys, they’ll be fine.
A lot of dopey writers are also spending time trying to compare and breakdown the top lines of these teams and entering into the eternal pissing match of “Who’s Better?!?!?!?!”
Malkin is an MVP candidate. Crosby is an all-world talent and likely soon to also be a Hart Trophy guy. Marian Hossa is gunning for the Stanley Cup and a nice, fat contract in the off-season. He’ll get that no matter what he does in the Finals and he’s the guy who’s been responsible for many of Pittsburgh’s back-breaking goals. Ryan Malone has developed into a blue-collar Pittsburgh folk hero with his yeoman’s work on the ice.
Comparing them with Detroit’s line of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom is an exercise in futility. You’ll see these lines butt heads, you’ll see these lines trade “EVENs” in the plus-minus column when they do hit the ice against each other. Anyone expecting Malkin and Crosby to run roughshod over Detroit’s Swedish-Russian mixer line hasn’t been watching much hockey this year. In case you’ve missed it, both Datsyuk and Zetterberg are Selke Trophy nominees this year for best defensive forward. These are 90-point scoring forwards that also keep you from scoring. Zetterberg alone had two short-handed goals against Dallas. Top guys on the penalty kill?
What this series will boil down to are the defensemen, and right now, Detroit’s got the best. That can all change at the drop of the hat with injuries, I know, but when you’ve got Nicklas Lidstrom logging 30 minutes out of every 60 for you…that’s hard to deal with. Nick Kronwall is currently the leading scorer amongst defensemen in the playoffs and he’s also been the highlight reel guy with his hits throughout the playoffs. Brad Stuart, playing on a winning team for the first time in forever, is reveling in the moment and playing outstanding for Detroit – so much so that he’s given up his love of the surf and sand of the West Coast to say that he even loves Detroit. Brian Rafalski too has been his normal steady and outstanding self and has enjoyed shaking off the shackles of being stifled in New Jersey for so long. That’s your top four right there. Brett Lebda and Chris Chelios have been the shakier set to put out there and look for Michel Therrien to exploit that as best as he can, especially when the series moves to Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s set on the blue line gives me reason to pause. Sergei Gonchar has enjoyed once again being put at the helm of an offensively minded team, Brooks Orpik has avoided dealing out crappy dangerous hits and has been solid defensively. Ryan Whitney and Kris Letang, two young stud defensemen, have really stepped up well and provide a good unit to put out on the second power play. Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill round out the top six and provide an equally stomach-quaking unit for Penguins fans to deal with. Look for the Datsyuk line to jump on the ice whenever Gill or Scuderi hit the ice.
On defense, Detroit has the names and Pittsburgh has the youth and both have played outstanding for their teams. They’re also going to be dealing with teams unlike what they’ve seen to this point in the playoffs. Then Penguins won’t be dealing with a broken and punchless Ottawa team, a scoring-allergic Rangers squad or a team destined for comeuppance like the Flyers. They’re getting the Swedish Flying Circus. Don’t buy into the hype that Detroit is a finesse team and they can’t body up.
Detroit isn’t facing off with a blue-collar nightmare from Nashville, a false-facade team with a suspect goalie and poor coaching like Colorado or a team that spent most of the series asleep at the wheel like Dallas. They’re getting the NHL’s Future. They’re getting the team that gets compared to the Gretzky Oilers of the 1980′s, even right down to the Pens starting off 11-1 just like the 1983 Oilers did. Detroit’s defense will have their hands full and they’ll have to be smart and not doing anything to get them thrown in the box. Pittsburgh’s power play unit is too dangerous to give too many chances to. Likewise for Pittsburgh, you don’t want to give Lidstrom two minutes to play quarterback and be able to fire off to his wideouts on a whim.
Sit back and enjoy the ride – this should be one to remember if all cards hold suit here. Just be sure to knock on some wood to make sure referee boners or mystic mandates from Herr Bettman don’t distract from the show we’ll be privy to on the ice.