This Stanley Cup Final feels familiar

Wednesday June 3rd, 2009

Too much déjà vu, it's getting creepy. Two years in a row, same teams in the Stanley Cup Final, same pattern. Detroit wins two at home, the series moves to Pittsburgh, and the Penguins take a nailbiter.

"We've both been here in this situation before," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock on the morning of Game 3.

In the spirit of this column, we can replay that quote for you. "We've both been here in this situation before," said Red Wings' coach Mike Babcock -- now, before Game 4, and it's still entirely apt.

This series looks the same (the results, anyway) and feels the same (Detroit wins with depth; the Penguins with opportunism) and even smells the same. You crowd into the visitors' closet (or was that the locker room?) at the 38-year-old Mellon Arena a few minutes after a herd of sweating Red Wings come in, and, well, that's a scent that says springtime hockey.

Dig deeper and, sure, things have changed a bit. Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin has morphed from one fictional character (The Invisible Man, 2008) to another (given that he had a hand in the first five Pittsburgh goals of this series, let's call him Zeus, 2009). Also, Marian Hossa now wears red underclothes. Last year he wore black.

But the important things are no different. Sidney Crosby still has incomprehensible facial hair. Babcock still likes to grin, shrug and offer, "Whattya want me to say?" when asked on the record about some lousy officiating that went against Detroit.

And if you hang around the bowels of an arena before a game these days, you'll soon come upon eight bearded Red Wings playing a little fotboll (that's Swedish for soccer) just as they did while keeping loose in last year's final. As then, this is a team that feels very much in control.

"Up two games to one is pretty good," said right wing Mikael Samuelsson after Game 3. "And we're not playing badly, are we?"

No, definitely not. If the Penguins were the better team for long stretches of Games 1 and 2 with little to show for it, Detroit was dominant through the first two periods of Game 3. The Wings had five scoring chances in second period, the Penguins none. Maybe that's the secret to this year's final: let your opponent outshoot you. It's worked so far.

There's every reason to think that the past will continue to be prologue. Last year's Conn Smythe-winner was Henrik Zetterberg. This year, Z leads the Red Wings with 21 postseason points. His persistent defense has limited Crosby to one assist in three games. Zetterberg plays all over the ice, logs more minutes than any forward in the final and is a plus-13 for the postseason. In Game 2, he dived across the goalline to foil a Crosby scoring opportunity. (Yup, a lot like last year). You can say what you want about Chris Osgood being MVP of these playoffs, but if the games ended today, I'd vote for Zetterberg with both hands.

So here we are in early June, watching these changed, familiar clubs engage in the NHL season's final battle. They are two very good teams, the two best in hockey, and they are each driven mainly by young stars. It is enough to make you think we just might see this again, same time, next year.

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