Control Freaks

Possession is nine-tenths of the battle between the Red Wings and Penguins. Three years after the NHL rejiggered its rules for more offense, the league has its ideal championship matchup
June 01, 2008

RED WINGS forwardMikael Samuelsson intercepted a pass near center ice in Game 1 of the StanleyCup finals, blew past some Pittsburgh Penguins going off on a line change andhurtled through the neutral zone with the puck on his backhand. As a juniorpartner on Team Puck Possession, the 31-year-old Swede knew he would beexpected to make a play. His choices were limited as he barrelled down the leftwing. Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi was in front of him. There was no optionto Samuelsson's right because throwing the puck into the middle of the ice andhoping to find a teammate's stick is not the prescribed method in Detroit,where the puck, like a cherished family heirloom is not given away lightly.Samuelsson thought of cutting to the middle, saw the space close and then wentinto overdrive to the outside, circling the net and scoring the first goal ofthe game on a wraparound before goalie Marc-André Fleury could cover his farpost.

"We're adifferent team than what they've played," Red Wings goalie Chris Osgoodsaid after Detroit had won the opener of the most anticipated finals in morethan a decade 4--0. "The Rangers would have been closest to [us]. Ottawadumps [the puck] quite a bit. Philly definitely does. We possess the puck themajority of the time, if we can.... That's what we believe in, and I just thinkthey hadn't seen it before. We do it better than any other team in theleague."

Even better thanthe Penguins. Although this finals hardly promises to be a last-goal-winsaffair, it is a showcase of two glittering offensive teams and, more pointedly,the puck-possession game. That's why, 491 miles from downtown Detroit, Rangerswinger Brendan Shanahan plopped himself in front of a TV in his New York Cityapartment to watch Game 1. Once his team is eliminated from the playoffs—thePenguins had flattened the Rangers in five games in a second-roundseries—Shanahan typically doesn't tune in; he finds it too painful. But aStanley Cup being contested between two industrial cities that have hockeycultures and have rosters dripping with talent (call it a Diamonds and Rustfinals) was a siren call. "Like most people," Shanahan said, "I wasjust too curious."

The Red Wings andthe Penguins are Shanahan's teams, if only in a metaphysical sense. Hisproprietorship dates to the 2004--05 lockout when Shanahan, then with Detroit,convened the so-called Shanahan Summit, a meeting of some players, coaches, TVexecutives and other hockey people that addressed the state of the on-iceproduct. The summit would lead to the unshackling of the NHL, the crackdown onthe restraining fouls that had constipated the game by tilting it away fromskill players and giving an advantage to defensive stubbornness.

The three-yearjourney from gabfest to a finals between the NHL's most conspicuously talentedteams was a torturous one, but the dots can be connected between the tweaks tothe game and a finals matching teams fully committed to making plays.

THE PENGUINSacquired the skill to play their puck-possession style the modern way: throughthe rewards of incompetence. Holding the No. 1 or 2 pick in three straightdrafts beginning in 2004, they plucked (in order) Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosbyand Jordan Staal, now their top three centers. This is a dynasty starter kit, atrio capable of hanging on to the puck. The 6'3", 192-pound Malkin, with aboardinghouse reach and a wondrous ability to shield the puck, can drawdefenders to him and hold them off until he finds linemate Petr Sykora, stickcocked, open for a one-timer.

The Red Wingshave only one forward, center Dan Cleary, who was drafted in the first round,but for two decades they've been importing European players who follow theorganization's central premise: Having the puck most of the time gives you abetter chance to score than the other guys. (As Samuelsson noted on the eve ofthe finals, "Why would anyone want to give up the puck in the first place?You want to create stuff with the puck.") Former Detroit general managerJim Devellano, now a senior vice president, was intrigued by the skills of thehigh-end European players in the mid- and late 1980s. In the middle rounds ofthe draft he preferred taking a chance on gifted Russians and Czechs such asSergei Fedorov and Petr Klima in anticipation of the fall of the Iron Curtain.When Scotty Bowman arrived as the coach in 1993--94, he engineered trades fordefenseman Slava Fetisov and center Igor Larionov.

"One day [in1995] Scotty puts these five Russians together [as a unit], and they've got thepuck the whole winter," says G.M. Ken Holland, once Devellano's chiefscout. "Pretty soon our checkers—guys like [Kirk] Maltby, [Kris] Draper,[Darren] McCarty—realize, You know what, it's easier to have the puck and havethem chase you. So our checking line is playing puck possession, and we slowlyevolve into a European puck-possession-type team. The reason it works today iswe've done it for 10 years. We draft, trade and look for free agents that fitthat style." There are no exceptions, even for plow horses such as39-year-old Dallas Drake, who signed with Detroit before this season. "Ifyour puck skills aren't good," he said, "you'll just get embarrassedevery day in practice."

The current RedWings, who have four Swedes, a Russian and a Finn among their usual top sixforwards, aren't quite the dervishes that the Russian Five were—Larionov &Co. were a confetti-in-the-water-bucket trick shy of being theGlobetrotters—but they still wheel in the neutral zone before resumingattacks.

Says Pittsburgh'sPascal Dupuis, who plays on Crosby's left flank, "The difference in stylesis that we'll go right up ice [because our goal] is to play as deep in theirend as possible. [The Wings] will regroup. They'll [move the puck fromdefenseman to defenseman] before going up." After outshooting the Penguins36--19 in Game 1, the Red Wings had taken more shots than the opposition in 15of 17 playoff games. Because it controls the puck so often, Detroit effectivelyBubble-Wraps Osgood, who has faced 21 shots or fewer nine times in 13starts.

Of course to keepthe puck, you have to get it first. The Red Wings' NHL-best 53.3% success rateon face-offs during the regular season jumped to 55.7% in the first threeplayoff rounds. And although they held a slim 35--31 advantage in Game 1 draws,quality sometimes trumps quantity. With Pittsburgh trying to carve intoDetroit's 2--0 lead on a late power play, Draper, on his backhand in aneutral-zone draw, cleanly whipped Staal. Red Wings defenseman Brad Stuartgathered the puck and flung it 175 feet up ice, where a streaking Clearybackhanded the carom off the end boards past Fleury. Game over. "That's ourthing," Cleary said. "When we win the draw, I don't even look back. Infact as soon as the puck's dropped, I know Drapes will win it; he's so good onhis backhand. I'm gone."

FOR THE NHL, thebest thing that might come out of this series is a Game 7. Even a casual sportsfan might be disposed to watch a storied franchise such as Detroit play awinner-takes-all game against Sid the Kid. The second-best thing—and a nearcertainty no matter the progression or outcome of the series—is the return ofskill and speed as the NHL's gold standard, the hegemony of talent. As Shanahansays, "Everyone tries to copy the Stanley Cup champion."

Much like theeffect of the new rules, this won't happen overnight. It takes time, and luck,to assemble and calibrate a team to do what the Red Wings and the Penguins do,even at more modest levels. Still, Detroit's virtuosity against Pittsburgh'sembryonic dynasty-in-waiting may be a preview of hockey's happy future.

"If your puck skills aren't good," says theRed Wings' Drake, "you'll just get EMBARRASSED EVERY DAY INPRACTICE."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesBACKHANDED COMPLEMENT Draper's face-off ability (here he's beating Penguin Adam Hall) helps Detroit's possessive style. PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLAPLAYOFF PUSH Crosby, who decked Brad Stuart in Game 1, was one of the high draft picks who revamped Pittsburgh's game.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)