Wednesday May 21st, 2008

Regular season series: Did not meet

Could hockey fans -- or the NHL -- ask for a better finals match-up? The old guard Red Wings, inarguably the game's most popular franchise and one of the most fascinating to watch, against the marketing lynchpin of the sport: Sidney Crosby and the team of the future.

Or maybe the team of today.

That's what's on tap as the season winds down with the most compelling draw since Patrick Roy's Montreal Canadiens topped Wayne Gretzky's Los Angeles Kings 15 years ago.

Truth is, it appears as though there's little to separate these two clubs heading into what should be a dynamic series. Both steamrolled to these finals with a combined 24-6 mark. Both faced injury-riddled pushovers (Ottawa, Colorado) and feisty overachievers (Philadelphia, Dallas), but neither the Penguins nor the Red Wings have truly been challenged to this point.

That, however, is about to change as both teams bear striking similarities.

The Wings and Pens may live by a strict defensive code, but it's all done with an eye on setting the table for a gaggle of gifted offensive talent. Both employ a puck-possession style that takes full advantage of the high skill level of their forwards and the poise and passing abilities of their backlines. Both can beat you with go-go offense or a patient trap-like defense, and both appear to be comfortable switching to whichever style is more likely to succeed at a moment's notice.

Each team is highlighted by a pair of highlight-generating superstars. The Wings are led by Henrik Zetterberg (21 points, plus-15) and Pavel Datsyuk (19 points, eight goals on the road). The potent Penguin attack is headlined by Sidney Crosby (17 assists) and Evgeni Malkin (19 points). The question is whether playing a pair of aces together, as the Wings do, or apart will be the more impactful use of their talents.

The Pens might have an advantage in secondary scoring. Marian Hossa is coming in hot, having scored nine points in the five-game series against the Flyers. They can also count on contributions from Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora, who lend balance and depth to the top six. Absent the services of injured winger Johan Franzen, the Wings are at a disadvantage. They'll be hoping for players like Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula to step up.

Detroit will, however get a boost from its high-scoring defense, led by the surprising Niklas Kronwall, whose 12 assists and nasty physical play make him the ideal complement to the one-two punch of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski. The Pens can't match the wattage of their counterparts, but they're a solid group, reminiscent of the backline that led the Hurricanes to the Cup in 2006. Capable and disciplined, they won't give Detroit's forwards much time or space to operate in their zone.

The most fascinating match-up may be in net, where the veteran Chris Osgood duels up 'n comer Marc-Andre Fleury. Since returning from a high ankle sprain on Feb. 28, Fleury has established himself as an elite stopper, going 22-4-1, with a 1.62 GAA, .942 save percentage and five shutouts. During his 12-2 playoff run, he hasn't been called upon to win games by himself, but he's played with a maturity and confidence that resonates throughout the roster.

At the other end of the ice, Osgood has been a picture of solid efficiency since taking over for Dominik Hasek in the Nashville series. The Wings give up so few shots, and even fewer quality chances, that he hasn't had to be spectacular, either. But as his 12-2 record suggests, he's up to the task. Both netminders are likely to be tested far more frequently, and with higher-percentage chances, than they've faced so far. The experience of Osgood could give the Wings a slight edge.

One area where there's clear separation is in the faceoff circle. The Wings ranked first (53.3 percent) during the regular season and have upped their success rate in the playoffs (55.7). The Pens, on the other hand, ranked 30th in the regular season (46.1) and 14th among 16 teams in the postseason. By gaining possession off the draw, and forcing the Pens to try to take the puck away from them, the Wings should have a distinct advantage when it comes to imposing their will on the series.

Gretzky didn't take his first swig of champagne from the Cup until his fifth season. Mario Lemieux's first taste came in his seventh year. And here stands Crosby, the heir apparent to both and the player most capable of pushing hockey back into cultural relevance in the U.S., poised to lead his team to glory in just his third season. Let's just hope no one spoils the party by mentioning that he's not yet legally old enough to touch the bubbly.

Just 20 years old, The Kid came into the postseason with five playoff games to his credit, but his play through three rounds suggests a more comprehensive resume. He's been nothing short of remarkable, leading the playoffs in scoring and coming up with big plays at big moments. Most important, though, is the leadership factor. As good as Malkin's been at times, this is Sid's team, and the youngest captain in NHL history has been the prime motivator during this playoff run. His mates can't match what he does offensively, but his dedication to the system, particularly his play away from the puck, sets an example that's being emulated by the entire roster.

Crosby will be the prime target of Detroit's checkers, which is no different than what he faces every other game. But in facing the league's best shutdown unit of Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Lidstrom and Rafalski, he'll also be stretched in his own defensive responsibilities. How he handles that could determine the outcome of the series.

It is the biggest question mark for Detroit heading into the series: What, if anything, will they get from their leading goal scorer?

After notching 12 goals, including an astounding five game-winners, through Detroit's first 11 games, Franzen has spent the past five contests in the press box, sidelined by "concussion-like symptoms." Will he be a player in this series? Reports indicate that he's suffering fewer headaches, and has begun light workouts. He's expected to be examined by team physicians on Thursday, but still is considered doubtful for Saturday's Game 1. The stretched schedule (games on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays) may allow him to join the team later in the series. If he can, he will provide a huge offensive boost and could tilt the final result in the Wings' favor.

After suffering through a disappointing regular season in which he scored just 12 times, Staal has rediscovered his offensive touch in the playoffs, chipping in with six goals. Timely offense from the third-liner will be critical to the Pens' chances in this round, but not so much as the sharply focused defensive game that belies the fact that Staal is just 19 years old. Expect Mike Therrien to try to use Staal's line as often as possible against Detroit's top unit, especially in Pittsburgh where the home ice advantage will give him the last change.

Allan Muir is the senior editor of Beckett Hockey magazine and serves as the NHL's official scorer for Dallas Stars home games.

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