|Youth serves Pens, experience paces Red Wings|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 21 May 2008 11:59|
It's been quite a run to the Stanley Cup finals for this year's NHL conference champions, who have combined for 24 wins and only six losses along the way.
Back when it took only eight wins to claim the Cup in the Original Six era, octopi starting hitting the ice in Detroit to provide a symbolic squid-like countdown of tentacles to the championship. Even though the necessary win total has doubled, the tradition still exists at Joe Louis Arena.
The Red Wings rolled through the Western Conference playoffs with a 12-4 mark, sandwiching six-game victories over Nashville and Dallas around a sweep of Colorado.
Pittsburgh stormed through the East, grabbing 3-0 leads against Ottawa, the New York Rangers and Philadelphia. New York and Philadelphia both managed home wins in Game 4 to stay alive only to be eliminated two days later in Pittsburgh. The Penguins are 8-0 in the playoffs at home and have a 16-game winning streak there dating to a shootout loss to San Jose on Feb. 24.
Adding in the first-round sweep of Ottawa, the Penguins are a sparkling 12-2 overall.
Each team relies on big-name forwards to carry the offensive load and both have solid supporting casts. Don't be fooled, though. The Penguins and Red Wings have ridden a strong defensive presence - up front and on the blue line - with exceptional goaltending to get this far, too.
Detroit had a league-high 115 points in the regular season, while Pittsburgh earned the No. 2 seed in the East with 102.
``Both teams are very similar,'' said Penguins forward Ryan Malone, a Pittsburgh native. ``The way we played through our playoffs, I think we earned our chance out of the East. I think the same for them. I think we match up pretty similar, which is kind of scary.''
So is the sheer collection of talent and marquee-quality star power that will be on display beginning Saturday night in the series opener. The names are familiar even to those who might not have tuned into Versus much throughout the long NHL season.
Pittsburgh boasts reigning MVP Sidney Crosby - who is only 20 - and fellow young forward Evgeni Malkin, a finalist for the award this season at age 21. The Red Wings are powered up front by Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who combined for 74 goals and 189 points in the regular season.
Johan Franzen is still the Red Wings' playoff leader with 12 goals, but he hasn't played since Game 1 of the conference finals because of post-concussion symptoms. His status for the next round is uncertain.
On the back end, Detroit is led by Nicklas Lidstrom, who is in line for his sixth Norris Trophy and his second three-peat as the NHL's top defenseman. Chris Osgood has been exceptional in goal since taking over in the first round from shaky Dominik Hasek.
Osgood is 10-2 with a 1.60 goals-against average in 13 games, losing two tough decisions to Dallas after his nine-game winning streak carried the Red Wings to a 3-0 lead over the Stars in the conference finals.
The 35-year-old Osgood is arguably on a more impressive run now than the one that led to the Red Wings' second straight Cup title back in 1998 during his first stint with Detroit.
``Responding like he did back then, that's the way he's been playing for us now, too,'' Lidstrom said. ``He's mentally strong where he can just put things behind him, forget about a bad rebound, bad goal. He keeps on going for us. That's huge for the guys, to see the way he's responding to all the challenges.''
The same can be said for Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who at 23 is finally showing the ability that led Pittsburgh to select him No. 1 in the 2003 draft. While recovering from an ankle injury that limited him to 35 regular-season games, he saw backup Ty Conklin keep the Penguins in the hunt for first in the East.
Upon his return, Fleury proved to coach Michel Therrien that he was the one to carry the Penguins through the playoffs. In 14 postseason games, Fleury has a 1.70 GAA and has stopped 364 of 388 shots.
The Red Wings of 1997 and '98 were the last repeat champions. Before that, the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins in 1991 and '92 were the previous back-to-back winners. Those marked Pittsburgh's only previous appearances in the Stanley Cup finals.
Detroit earned its last title in 2002 with a five-game win over Carolina, the last time both finalists came from the Eastern time zone.
The Red Wings and Penguins didn't meet in the regular season and have never matched up in the postseason. In fact, the cities haven't faced off with a pro title on the line in any sport since the 1909 World Series, when the Steel City's Pirates topped the Detroit Tigers 4-3.
Back then, the big names were future Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb. This time, Pittsburgh's Crosby, Malkin and Marian Hossa, and Detroit's Lidstrom, Hasek, and 46-year-old Chris Chelios more than fit the bill.
``I've watched them on TV,'' Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said of the Penguins. ``We played them in exhibition. Malkin wasn't in the game. I was very impressed with their team then. They've got high skill level, big forwards. The back end moves the puck. Their goaltender is playing well.
``In our league now, everybody's good. For two to be remaining, they must be very good. Their transition is fantastic. They have a bunch of kids that can really skate. It's going to be a huge challenge for us.''
Kids is quite the operative word when it comes to the high-flying Penguins, who have incorporated a defensive-minded trap to balance out the offense. Both teams thrive in possessing the puck for long stretches of games and forcing mistakes to get it back and transition to the attack.
So the age-old question exists: will youthful legs be enough to offset the vast experience owned by the Red Wings?
The average age of the Penguins, who have played in at least one playoff game this year, is 27.9 - compared to 32.3 for Detroit. The Red Wings have 10 players on their roster who have captured the Cup, combining for 23 championships. Pittsburgh has three former winners, totaling four titles.
The Penguins have risen quickly after having the second-fewest points in the league just two seasons ago.
``It has the makings of what should be a great final with two really good, skilled hockey teams,'' Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. ``There's the added mystery of not playing each other this year. I think that adds to the element.''