Saturday May 30th, 2009

The Skinny: You know that old saying about defense winning championships? Forget it. This is the New NHL, and these days it's all about the O. Little wonder then that the league's two most lethal sides are back to test their marksmanship on one another for the second year in a row.

The Penguins cruised to the Finals rematch on the backs of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the duo accounting for 40 percent of the team's scoring through three rounds. The Red Wings aren't thinking about stopping them. They're just hoping to limit the damage they are certain to cause.

A number of readers took exception when I labeled Crosby the game's most gifted grinder earlier in the playoffs, but it's hard to imagine anyone arguing with the description now. His playoffs have been defined by his level of determination. Sid's been unstoppable along the boards and on the cycle, and he's doing all his finishing within five feet of the net. They're rarely works of art, but his goals sure look pretty on the scoreboard.

Malkin, on the other hand, has become the human highlight reel, using size, speed and those incredible hands to light up the Hurricanes for nine points in four games. Both he and Crosby benefit from the physical presence of Max Talbot and newcomers Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz and Ruslan Fedotenko. The veteran wingers give them the space to play within their comfort zones -- an element that was missing last spring.

The Wings may have struggled at times during the regular season, but they're built to crush all comers in the playoffs. Detroit has plenty of sizzle in MVP finalist Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and 40-goal man Marian Hossa, but their postseason success is written in the battered faces and sore backs of Johan Franzen (10 goals), Dan Cleary (eight goals) and Tomas Holmstrom, whose crease-crashing presence can't accurately be measured by his points total alone.

At this time of year, the outcome of a series often is determined by role players. Edge: Detroit. Datsyuk goes down? No problem -- here's Valtteri Filppula, who scored three points in Game 4 against the Hawks. Kris Draper sidelined? In steps minor leaguer Darren Helm, the human Energizer Bunny, to lead the team in hits and pick up the occasional OT winner. The Pens may have the Dynamic Duo, but the Wings dress the Deep Dozen ... and that depth has a way of paying off in a long series.

Detroit also has an edge on the blue line, but the significance of it relies on the health of Nicklas Lidstrom. If he's at even 80 percent, the Wings' experience and skill will provide plenty of resistance to Crosby and Malkin. The Pens' no-name group has been great, but Detroit's forwards managed to control the paint against Anaheim's Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin. They should be able to handle this bunch. The most telling battle should be between the pipes. Chris Osgood is Detroit's leading Conn Smythe candidate after using the first three rounds to stick it to the critics (including this one) that questioned him during his brutal regular season. He clearly remembers what it takes to win. Marc-Andre Fleury, on the other hand, remains a question mark.

While the ability to make the big save at a key moment has defined his success to this point, it's hard to overlook that .906 save percentage. The Wings average nearly 40 shots per night. Do the math and it's clear Fleury will have to be considerably more effective than he's been thus far to keep this thing close.

The Spotlight Is On ... : Marian Hossa. There are bigger stars in this series, but no bigger story. Hossa's decision to pursue what he thought was his best shot at the Cup -- rather than the biggest contract -- established him as an almost heroic figure to fans frustrated by the departures of cash-obsessed free agents. Except, of course, to the Penguins' faithful who took his "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" decision as a slap in the face.

Of course, he's more than just the emotional fulcrum of the series. Hossa needs to be an impact performer. He put together a solid regular season but has been a figure of middling importance in the playoffs. He's firing a lot of pucks on net (77) but has just six goals to show for his effort. And while a trio of two-goal efforts hint at his potential to dominate, being blanked in 13 of 16 games leaves the Wings wanting more. His ability to light the lamp with consistency is critical to Detroit's chances.

X-Factor for Red Wings: Valtteri Filppula. If Datsyuk remains sidelined, Filppula will center the second line between Holmstrom and Hossa. It's not an unfamiliar role -- he filled it during last season's Cup run -- but he wasn't replacing an MVP candidate then. Filppula looked comfortable against Chicago, but the skates become harder to fill in this series. The Wings are counting on contributions from two scoring lines, so that means he'll have to shoot the puck more often ... and while he's at it, he'll have to assume the defensive responsibilities of the likely Selke winner.

X-Factor for Penguins: Chris Kunitz. Hey Chris, love the leadership. Oh, and the physical presence in front of the net? A big help, to be sure. But, um, here's the thing. You're playing alongside Sidney Crosby and all you've got to show for that gift from the hockey gods is one lousy goal in 17 games! Craig Adams sees Crosby once or twice a period and has three goals to his credit. Geez, Warren Young would have a dozen by now! Intangibles are swell, but a little bit more finish would be nice. See what you can do about that, okay?

The Pick: My heart is saying Penguins, but the defending champs have done nothing over the last two months to suggest the title is up for grabs. Red Wings take it in six to become the first repeat winners in 11 years.

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