Darren Eliot
Monday November 10th, 2008

Tuesday night features the return engagement between last spring's Stanley Cup finalists as the Pittsburgh Penguins travel to Detroit to tangle with Red Wings (7 p.m. Eastern time on Versus). Both teams sport spiffy records heading into the match-up -- the Pens at 8-4-2 with identical 4-2-1 home and road marks; the Wings at 9-2-2 despite already having played eight road games.

So, on the surface, all seems to be as you'd expect, except the defending Cup champs are coming into this meeting more intact than last season's challengers, and the Red Wings are healthier to boot. In fact, one of the interesting aspects of this game is that it features Marian Hossa as a member of the Wings whereas in the Cup final he was patrolling the left side for Pittsburgh -- on a line with Sidney Crosby no less. Backup goalie Ty Conklin also made the switch from the Pens to the Wings during the offseason, but it is the Hossa move that had the most impact on the state of these two teams.

Hossa landed in Detroit's lineup when he made it known that he would entertain a one-year contract, and spurn a multi-year offer for megabucks to stay in Pittsburgh. He would do so, as the story goes, for slightly less than the Wings self-imposed salary mark of $7.5M -- the amount paid to their top player, Nick Lidstrom. When GM Ken Holland offered to call Lidstrom and see if he'd be opposed to having Hossa sign for more than his rate, Hossa said there was no need and promptly signed for $7.49 million.

That left quite a hole on the Penguins' top line. Hossa and Crosby worked extremely well together, once they were both healthy and had some time to gel. Along with Pascal Dupuis -- the other piece that was acquired at the trade deadline from the Atlanta Thrashers -- the line was by far the best against the Red Wings. Since then, Hossa has formed a similar bond with Pavel Datsyuk, going 8-9-17, which is good for seventh in league scoring.

Meanwhile, Crosby ranks fifteenth at 3-13-16 due to his having scored only three goals. Dupuis has but two tallies on the season. To say the Penguins are searching for continuity isn't a stretch. To replace Hossa and Ryan Malone, who signed with Tampa Bay as another UFA defector, Pens GM Ray Shero brought in underachieving Islanders Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko. Thus far, Satan leads the Penguins with eight goals, but Fedotenko is struggling to gain any kind of traction. He has just two markers in his first 13 games.

Yet, the Penguins are finding ways to win. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been excellent. The penalty-killing ranks fifth in the NHL. They are doing this without the services of their top two defensemen, Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney. Evgeni Malkin -- neutralized to a large extent in last season's final series -- leads the NHL scoring race with 22 points and 18 assists. As a group, the Penguins are showing tremendous resolve in a period of personnel transition.

And while the Red Wings are breezing along, they are giving up more goals- against and shots-against (3.08 and 28.9 respectively) than last season (2.18 and 23.5, both of which set the standard in the NHL). Maybe more telling is how the Wings are getting it done. Their powerplay is off the charts at over 30% efficiency, but it masks a precipitous drop in even-strength efficiency. Last season, the Wings led the league with a 1.41 ratio of goals-scored vs. goals-surrendered while skating five-on-five. This season, they are merely break-even, which a decline in even-strength effectiiveness of nearly half a goal per game.

It all adds up to the two Conference champions from 2007-08 getting off to comparatively strong starts, not that the numbers will matter one bit once they drop the puck. It promises to be more personal than predictable because, after all, who could have foretold Hossa as a Red Wing last spring when the Cup was at stake?

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