History is supposed to teach us lessons and give us insight into the future. When it comes to tonight's Game 7 in Detroit between the Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins, what view is pertinent -- the overall history or recent recall?
A winner-take-all scenario to decide the Stanley Cup winner is a special occasion to be sure. Only 14 times has it come down to this, most recently in 2006 when the Carolina Hurricanes outdid the Edmonton Oilers. Only twice has the road team emerged as the victor -- the last being the 1971 Montreal Canadiens, the first being the 1945 Toronto Maple Leafs. In the long view, then, the Penguins are facing long odds to prevail.
So, what of home-ice advantage? The home team won each of the first six games of this series, and the 2003, 1965 and 1955 Cup finals were decided in exactly that fashion. Why does it seem to matter so much when the game matters most?
Well, home ice becomes the rallying point for the reason for the season. With everything at stake on the biggest stage, with the best players, at the height of competition, familiarity becomes, as the numbers indicate, a subtle, tangible and tactical positive. In an even set, between two obviously well-matched teams, nuances add up as difference-makers. These include having the last line change to get favorable matchups, and the home side centermen enjoying an edge in leverage and strategy thanks to their ability to declare their position after their visiting opponent is set in the circle.
And what of recent history -- the moments both of these teams can draw strength from in the immediate? Where does the collective mindset of the athletes fit into all of this? For the Penguins, they certainly have the very real mental image of winning a Game 7 on the road in Washington this spring. They also know that they won at Joe Louis Arena last year when facing elimination, forcing a Game 6 with their triple overtime Gave 5 triumph. Can they do it again this time in Detroit?
The fact remains that their goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, hasn't fared all that well at Joe Louis Arena. He's been their weak link in that building thus far. Fleury is active and aggressive and seems to lose his base positioning more often in Detroit, due to the lively boards. Shots wide are more in play at JLA and it is a real variable that Fleury has struggled with. It's like the golfer playing a course that doesn't fit his eye. He must overcome the uncomfortable nature of the setting and deliver a bogey-free, clutch performance if the Penguins are to have a chance at hoisting the chalice.
And what of the Red Wings? They won a Game 7 on home ice earlier in the playoffs against the Anaheim Ducks. They are the defending Stanley Cup champions looking to repeat -- a single win away from fulfilling that goal. You would expect a certain calm and assuredness from the champs. But not all on their side know the feeling of delivering the ultimate prize. Marian Hossa was on the other side a year ago. He spurned the Penguins' offer last summer to join the Red Wings because "they give me the best chance to win the Cup." We'll see. So far, Hossa has been a non-factor in the final, and in Game 6 his play was painfully pedestrian, bordering on tight and tentative.
For their part, the Penguins added Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko and Craig Adams, all with a Stanley Cup on their respective resumes. Fedotenko has the distinction of scoring a Game 7-winning goal as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. So, yes, the Red Wings have more experience, but the Pens aren't entirely bereft of crucial knowledge and the awareness that heroes can come from any corner of the locker room.
Still, we all want to believe that a game of this magnitude will come down to whose stars will align and shine. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby or Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk? Will Fleury flourish where he has foundered? Can Hossa turn in a virtuoso performance against his former team when everything is on the line?
It will be riveting, compelling and telling... and historic.
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