Tuesday June 10th, 2008

On the afternoon of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, during a teleconference beamed to sylvan Oakland Hills Country Club in suburban Detroit, Tiger Woods was asked whom he liked that night, the Red Wings or the Pittsburgh Penguins. This was the kind of warmup question that Woods could have knocked 300 yards off the 1st tee with some generous platitude, but instead he grinned and said, "I don't really care.... I don't think anybody really watches hockey anymore."

His reply was more rip it than grip it.

Eleven hours after Tiger had implied that hockey was deader than a persimmon driver, Pittsburgh pulled out a stupefying 4-3, triple-overtime win to extend the series, the last bump in the Red Wings' ultimately glorious road to their 11th Stanley Cup. (That's more than any franchise has won except Montreal and Toronto.) The high-paced drama of Game 5 left an impression not only on NHL history -- it was the fifth-longest game in a Stanley Cup finals -- but also on Penguins left wing Ryan Malone.

As Malone sat in the dressing room, his lopsided kisser resembled an orange that had been run through a juicer. His nose had been broken for the second time in the series when it was struck by teammate Hal Gill's slap shot in the second period. (Malone returned for the third period, cotton jammed in his nostrils.) A few feet from Malone, defenseman Sergei Gonchar, whose back had been in spasms since he crashed headfirst into the boards late in the second period, was recounting his return in the third overtime and his role in setting up the winning power-play goal. The Penguins had earned that fateful man-advantage when Detroit's Jiri Hudler cut defenseman Rob Scuderi with a high stick, a mandatory four-minute penalty because Hudler had drawn blood. Across the room from Malone and Gonchar, Scuderi, a zipper of stitches across his russet-colored mustache, was saying, "You're skating up the ice hoping you're bleeding. . . . I was just praying for blood."

(That is not the kind of prayer, incidentally, that players will be voicing this weekend at the U.S. Open, starring Woods and his arthroscopically repaired left knee, an event at which a commentator, in reverential tones, will describe someone's aggressive shot as courageous. Guaranteed.)

Regarding Woods's assertion that no one "really watches hockey," he should know that a match that lasted nearly 110 minutes of game time averaged a 3.8 rating and a seven share in the U.S. -- roughly 6.25 million viewers -- and attracted another 3.4 million in Canada. Two nights later, after Detroit goalie Chris Osgood preserved a 3-2 series-ending victory by foiling Sidney Crosby's shot and sprawling as Marian Hossa's last-second rebound attempt slid through the crease, 6.8 million Americans saw the Red Wings skate with their fourth Cup in 11 years, the most-watched Game 6 in at least 13 years. In the Detroit area, where Woods will play at Oakland Hills in the PGA Championships this August, 45% of all TV viewers that night watched the Cup clincher on NBC.

Buttressing the NHL's appeal with numbers, whether TV ratings or the stitch count in the Penguins' dressing room, is like drawing a portrait of this rich, textured finals with stick figures. But the response to the often captivating Red Wings-Penguins series hints that hockey may be coming in from the cold, Tiger's opinion notwithstanding.

During a drill at the Red Wings' skate on the morning of Game 6, 24-year-old Swedish defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, who didn't crack Detroit's lineup all playoffs, began skating at the right circle, crossed over like Fred Astaire, took a pass and whipped a shot on goal from the left circle. It was a snippet of the kind of skill that has characterized Detroit teams for more than a decade.

These will be remembered as the Red Wings of Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk -- has the value of the Euro ever been higher? -- but no one seemed more emblematic of this extraordinary franchise than Ericsson, who, like a handful of other minor league prospects, had been afforded a two-month Stanley Cup tutorial by accompanying the team for its playoffs campaign. The 6' 5", 206-pound Ericsson is a tall glass of aquavit -- strong and smooth with a finishing kick. He was the NHL version of Mr. Irrelevant, chosen with the 291st, and final, selection of the 2002 draft. While some NHL teams had traded their last-round picks for future considerations in order to bolt for the airport that weekend in Toronto, Detroit heeded its European scouting director Hakan Andersson and selected a player who, at Andersson's urging, had switched from center to defense in his final year of junior hockey in Sweden.

In typical Red Wings fashion Ericsson has been tested and prodded and seasoned, much like the flashy Zetterberg was at his first training camp in 2002, when future teammate Darren McCarty made him his personal chew toy. "[McCarty] ran me over a few times," Zetterberg, this year's Conn Smythe winner, recalls, "but right after camp he apologized and said that [general manager] Ken Holland had told him to do it." Ericsson appeared in just eight of Detroit's games this season, yet with his industrial-strength shot, which was clocked at 100.1 mph last January in an AHL skills competition, Detroit consultant Scotty Bowman believes that Ericsson will be a top-four NHL defenseman -- perhaps as soon as next season. No organization handles the business of succession more adroitly than the Red Wings.

Consider: 21-year-old Darren Helm, a modest playoff contributor, is heir apparent to veteran superchecker Kris Draper -- except with better hands; 24-year-old center Valtteri Filppula is as good as the 27-year-old Zetterberg was at the same age; 27-year-old Niklas Kronwall is developing into a premier defenseman, to follow Lidstrom. Says assistant G.M. Jim Nill, "This group has three more years [as an elite team], then we've got a lot of guys who are 27, 28 or 29, so they have five years left. And our kids should be getting better. There's a definite chain of command here."

When a salary cap was introduced after the 2004-05 lockout, Detroit could no longer outspend other teams. (The Wings and the New York Rangers typically had the league's highest payrolls.) There were, however, no constraints against continuing to outthink them. The Red Wings used to be the New York Yankees. Now they are Moneyball.

The first thing to go in the losing dressing room is the playoff beard. As soon as the hirsute pursuit of the Cup concludes, whiskers follow Cup-hoisting hopes down the drain. An hour after Detroit's celebration had begun on the Mellon Arena ice, Crosby emerged from Pittsburgh's dressing room in a somber black suit and matching expression. The lamest playoff beard of 2008 had been shorn, but Crosby had kept that wispy mustache, at least for this night. He shook hands and wandered down the corridor to see his family.

The Cup belonged to the Red Wings, but Crosby never relinquished his grip on hockey's future. The captain was steadfast, working the hard areas on the ice, making inspired plays, taking hits like defenseman Brad Stuart's Game 6 blockbuster, which made Crosby blanch but never discouraged his forecheck. While other young Penguins forwards Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal swooned under the weight of expectations, Crosby was a factor until the final seconds, when he almost scored on a wicked backhander. In a finals crammed with indelible moments -- Zetterberg's exemplary penalty killing on a five-on-three in Game 4, Marc-André Fleury's second-period toe save on Mikael Samuelsson and Maxime Talbot's last-minute goal in regulation, which resuscitated the Penguins' season in Game 5 -- Crosby provided the coda.

In a perfect world his shot would have ticked off Osgood's glove and into the net, and the Penguins would have won again in overtime, setting up a Game 7 that could have vaulted these finals into the pantheon. Of course, in a perfect world Crosby would also be a better finisher. Considering the precociousness of this 20-year-old, however -- Crosby's 27 points tied Zetterberg for the playoff scoring lead -- that imperfection is a cavil, an element of his game that, like his playoff beard, will improve over time.

Much like the prospect of the NHL's return to the mainstream of American sports, Crosby, in a first but surely not last trip to the Stanley Cup finals, looked splendid.

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