Simply put, the Detroit Red Wings with Chris Osgood at the helm in goal were the best team in the NHL come playoff time.
They perpetually played low on mistakes, although you wouldn’t have really guessed that from watching the final two games of this series.
They played the best defense of anyone in the league while maintaining a high-powered and dangerous offense. Their goaltenders, the aforementioned Osgood and former-starter and future Hall-of-Famer Dominik Hasek, won the Jennings Trophy this season for least goals allowed – an award that’s as much a credit to the blueliners in front of them as it is to their ability to stop the puck.
The most talented forwards on the team don’t just score, they stop your big guys from scoring too. And worse yet for the rest of the league, there’s two of them supported by many others whose games are equally sound in other aspects. Four lines of pressure every night.
With all that said, NHL fans and media alike know that they didn’t really see the absolute best out of Detroit in this series – something that’s truly scary. Give that credit to the Pittsburgh Penguins who after the shellshock of the first two games of the Finals, snapped out of it to take the action to Detroit in a way they’d seen only a few times before. They got it out of Dallas and Nashville alike but Pittsburgh’s attack was all the more deadly simply because of the high level of offensive power they can roll out with.
Marian Hossa and Sidney Crosby we’re seemingly inseperable on the score sheet, the former finding a way to earn himself an even bigger payday in the offseason should he so choose. Defensemen like Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Orpik earned themselves a ton of respect. Gonchar went from being hailed as a non-defensive defenseman to being one of the more important guys out there on both ends. Brooks Orpik, he also on the impending unrestricted free agency list, solidified himself as a no-nonsese defensive defenseman, a polar opposite to that of the man formerly known as Sergei Gonchar.
The concerns for the Pens this offseason will be all the free agents they’ve got to deal with both restricted and unrestricted. They’ve also got to be mildly concerned with Evgeni Malkin’s production and complaints to the press during the Finals about being tired. Malkin did finally seem to settle down during the overtime periods in Game 5 and scored a goal in Game 6. As the Red Wings will tell you, sometimes you just need to take your time with the Russian forwards and know when to push their buttons. The Wings did it with both Sergei Fedorov and now with Pavel Datsyuk and those guys both managed to do things well after getting over the hump. This is where I’ll stick by my points from before Game 5 that Michel Therrien is not the guy to be leading this bunch.
That said, all the credit in the world for this Red Wings squad belongs equally to Ken Holland and Mike Babcock. Holland for knowing which buttons to push and what moves to make to ensure the team’s success. Stealing Brad Stuart away from the Los Angeles Kings is a move that didn’t seem to stand out to many, but Stuart provided the piece needed for the Wings to roll two top-notch, top flight defensive pairs. Stuart was always pegged as a #1 or #2 defenseman wherever he went and expectations may have been too much for him. He steps in in Detroit paired up with Nicklas Kronwall and they hit it off like bosom buddies all while helping to keep black-cloud-plagued Andreas Lilja off the ice.
All the stories you’re going to read from here on out are going to be about the Swedes. Hell, the title for this game comes from a Swedish newspaper headline, written in Swedish and everything! The wit just abounds around here I tell you.
That said, it can’t be overstated in any way how great three Swedes in particular played this playoff year. Nicklas Lidstrom, the captain, the first European captain to lead a Stanley Cup Champion was just himself out there and that’s better than just about 98% of the rest of the league. Johan Franzen, while battling mysterious concussion-like injuries, still managed to finish tied for the NHL Playoff lead in goals scored and he missed the better part of the Dallas series as well as part of the series with Pittsburgh.
And finally, Henrik Zetterberg who rose above all and showed what it means to be a dominating two-way force on the ice, scoring goals and preventing goals from scoring just the same. What other player out there can say he helped hold back one of the top power plays in the NHL while killing a 5×3 power play twice in the same series (Game 4 and again tonight in Game 6). People will reflect back on this Championship run by the Red Wings and watch and re-watch tape of what Henrik Zetterberg did all throughout these playoffs and be amazed. His efforts in Game 6, notching an assist and scoring the game-winning goal all while doing amazing work on the penalty kill.
Zetterberg is the type of player that young and up and coming players will want to model themselves after. After all, he’s not a hulking mass of man the way Eric Lindros was when he emerged and seemed to set the tone for what a hockey player should be. He’s what the NHL would love to have every team equipped with – luckily for the Red Wings, he’s all theirs. It may have seemed like overdramatized blustering from Mike Emrick during Game 4 when after Pittsburgh was denied on their 5×3 power play much in part to the play of Zetterberg that he referred to it as a “Conn Smythe performance” but he hit it flush on the head.
To all the hockey loudmouths out there who have some sort of maniacal pro-North American (or just pro-Canadian) bent who opted to look past the Red Wings because of the heavy European influence on the roster, just ask guys like Dallas Drake, Dan Cleary and Chris Osgood what they think of the soft Euros on their roster. It’s very likely they won’t hear you because of the Stanley Cup rings clogging up their ears. Xenophobic rants from a dottering old man like Don Cherry and the handfuls of others not nearly as famous as he got put to rest for good tonight and for that we should all be thankful.
Hockey is skill. Hockey is speed. Hockey is the highest of high talent. Hockey the way it was meant to be seen on the grandest stage of them all is what we were treated to over the last two weeks and when dinosaurs like Cherry opt to ignore the efforts of guys like Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Malkin because they didn’t hail from Flin Flon, Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw or even Moose Factory in Canada is embarassing and insulting to the rest of us that love this game.
I welcome our talented European overlords and hope that more like the ones we watched in the Finals as well as guys like Alexander Ovechkin come surging into North America to play in the NHL because then we all win, we all get our game back. We’ve gotten it back a lot the last couple of weeks and for those of you who just returned after a 14 or 15 year absence:
We’ve missed you. Now grab a seat, grab a beer and dust off that old sweater – things should only get better from here on out.