Friday June 5th, 2009

In last year's Stanley Cup Final between the Red Wings and Penguins, it was easy to see the series as a battle of the young and the ageless. Pittsburgh, led by its star 20-somethings, challenged an experienced Detroit team for the championship, but just couldn't get past the old standard.

"When we went down 2-0 last year, we were kind of shell-shocked and kind of knew we weren't the better team here," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "We knew they were a lot better than us.

"After the last couple of games here," he continued, "we felt like we played really well and we deserved at least a split in Detroit, but the bounces just didn't go our way. . .We came back here still a really confident group."

A year older, a year wiser works to young Pittsburgh's favor, for sure. But for Detroit, perhaps they could do without the year older part.

Like a woman approaching her 40s, the Red Wings never like to answer questions about age. But after Thursday's Game 4 loss, which turned this into a best-of-three series, there would be no way to avoid it. After Sidney Crosby punched in the game-winning goal midway through the second period, Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton nudged Orpik and told him to get a load of the Red Wings' bench. Hunched over and winded, they looked tired, he said.

"It was something that we saw in the third period of [Game 3, too]," Orpik said. "Something that we talked about. We thought it was really visible, and I thought the shots [10-3 in favor of the Penguins] were really indicative of that."

Playing four games in five days, Detroit may be feeling some of the effects of having the second-oldest roster in the NHL -- not to mention the absence of center Pavel Datsyuk. Though he looked like he might be ready to go on Thursday night, Detroit's Hart Trophy finalist sat out his seventh straight game with a foot injury. He is fully expected to make his return on Saturday. And that will be great news for Henrik Zetterberg, who's had to shoulder the responsibility of covering Crosby and somehow find a way to score on top of that -- a tall order for one guy.

"Just battling with [Crosby] takes a lot out of you," Orpik said, speaking from his experiences covering the star center in practice. "I think [Zetterberg] played like 25 minutes in [Game 3], and he's one of their offensive guys. They need him to score goals, but I think Sid's just taking so much out of him. It's tough for him to get going toward the end of the game and score goals."

Zetterberg respectfully disagrees, saying he didn't feel like he was any more fatigued in Pittsburgh than any other game. "You should be tired after games," he said. "Otherwise, you didn't work hard enough."

As for the rest of the team, there were some things during Game 4 that may suggest a little differently. The Red Wings, who practice puck possession better than any team in the league, iced it three times in the first period Thursday, an uncharacteristic move for a team that rarely relies on long, hail-mary passes to advance the puck. They're usually never that desperate, especially that early.

"I think they've had some guys do a good job on their forecheck," head coach Mike Babcock says, trying to explain his team's trouble with turnovers. "But we went through it this morning and showed our guys some clips that if we executed it all in these situations here -- and I'm not trying to take away anything they're doing on the forecheck -- but if you make some good plays, there is no forecheck."

Still, there are plenty of things that Pittsburgh is doing right; their special teams, for instance, are blowing Detroit out of the rink. And while it would be absolutely foolish to count the Red Wings out, the Penguins have at least proven that they're better than they were last year, even without Marian Hossa.

A year older, a year wiser, Pittsburgh is beginning to position itself to become a new old standard.

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