Fantastic Finish

June 16, 2008
June 16, 2008

Table of Contents
June 16, 2008

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  • In a championship series in which many have much to prove, long-suffering Celtics star Paul Pierce did the most to rehab his image, leading his team to a pair of home wins over the favored Lakers


Fantastic Finish

The dynamic Red Wings held off the Penguins in a taut, six-game series that reminded the nation just how compelling the NHL can be

ON THE afternoonof Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, during a teleconference beamed to sylvanOakland Hills Country Club in suburban Detroit, Tiger Woods was asked whom heliked that night, the Red Wings or the Pittsburgh Penguins. This was the kindof warmup question that Woods could have knocked 300 yards off the 1st tee withsome generous platitude, but instead he grinned and said, "I don't reallycare.... I don't think anybody really watches hockey anymore." ¬∂ His replywas more rip it than grip it. ¬∂ Eleven hours after Tiger had implied thathockey was deader than a persimmon driver, Pittsburgh pulled out a stupefying4--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 anyfranchise has won except Montreal and Toronto.) The high-paced drama of Game 5left an impression not only on NHL history—it was the fifth-longest game in aStanley Cup finals—but also on Penguins left wing Ryan Malone.

This is an article from the June 16, 2008 issue

As Malone sat inthe dressing room, his lopsided kisser resembled an orange that had been runthrough a juicer. His nose had been broken for the second time in the serieswhen 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 fewfeet from Malone, defenseman Sergei Gonchar, whose back had been in spasmssince he crashed headfirst into the boards late in the second period, wasrecounting his return in the third overtime and his role in setting up thewinning power-play goal. The Penguins had earned that fateful man-advantagewhen Detroit's Jiri Hudler cut defenseman Rob Scuderi with a high stick, amandatory four-minute penalty because Hudler had drawn blood. Across the roomfrom Malone and Gonchar, Scuderi, a zipper of stitches across hisrusset-colored mustache, was saying, "You're skating up the ice hopingyou're bleeding.... I was just praying for blood."

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

Regarding Woods'sassertion that no one "really watches hockey," he should know that amatch that lasted nearly 110 minutes of game time averaged a 3.8 rating and aseven share in the U.S.—roughly 6.25 million viewers—and attracted another 3.4million in Canada. Two nights later, after Detroit goalie Chris Osgoodpreserved a 3--2 series-ending victory by foiling Sidney Crosby's shot andsprawling as Marian Hossa's last-second rebound attempt slid through thecrease, 6.8 million Americans saw the Red Wings skate with their fourth Cup in11 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 theNHL's appeal with numbers, whether TV ratings or the stitch count in thePenguins' dressing room, is like drawing a portrait of this rich, texturedfinals with stick figures. But the response to the often captivating RedWings--Penguins series hints that hockey may be coming in from the cold,Tiger's opinion notwithstanding.

DURING A drill atthe Red Wings' skate on the morning of Game 6, 24-year-old Swedish defensemanJonathan Ericsson, who didn't crack Detroit's lineup all playoffs, beganskating at the right circle, crossed over like Fred Astaire, took a pass andwhipped a shot on goal from the left circle. It was a snippet of the kind ofskill that has characterized Detroit teams for more than a decade.

These will beremembered as the Red Wings of Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and PavelDatsyuk—has the value of the Euro ever been higher?—but no one seemed moreemblematic of this extraordinary franchise than Ericsson, who, like a handfulof other minor league prospects, had been afforded a two-month Stanley Cuptutorial by accompanying the team for its playoffs campaign. The 6'5",206-pound Ericsson is a tall glass of aquavit—strong and smooth with afinishing kick. He was the NHL version of Mr. Irrelevant, chosen with the291st, and final, selection of the 2002 draft. While some NHL teams had tradedtheir last-round picks for future considerations in order to bolt for theairport that weekend in Toronto, Detroit heeded its European scouting directorHakan Andersson and selected a player who, at Andersson's urging, had switchedfrom center to defense in his final year of junior hockey in Sweden.

In typical RedWings fashion Ericsson has been tested and prodded and seasoned, much like theflashy Zetterberg was at his first training camp in 2002, when future teammateDarren McCarty made him his personal chew toy. "[McCarty] ran me over a fewtimes," Zetterberg, this year's Conn Smythe winner, recalls, "but rightafter camp he apologized and said that [general manager] Ken Holland had toldhim to do it." Ericsson appeared in just eight of Detroit's games thisseason, yet with his industrial-strength shot, which was clocked at 100.1 mphlast January in an AHL skills competition, Detroit consultant Scotty Bowmanbelieves that Ericsson will be a top-four NHL defenseman—perhaps as soon asnext season. No organization handles the business of succession more adroitlythan the Red Wings.

Consider:21-year-old Darren Helm, a modest playoff contributor, is heir apparent toveteran superchecker Kris Draper—except with better hands; 24-year-old centerValtteri 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 followLidstrom. 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 theyhave five years left. And our kids should be getting better. There's a definitechain of command here."

When a salary capwas introduced after the 2004--05 lockout, Detroit could no longer outspendother teams. (The Wings and the New York Rangers typically had the league'shighest payrolls.) There were, however, no constraints against continuing tooutthink them. The Red Wings used to be the New York Yankees. Now they areMoneyball.

THE FIRST thingto go in the losing dressing room is the playoff beard. As soon as the hirsutepursuit of the Cup concludes, whiskers follow Cup-hoisting hopes down thedrain. 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 andmatching expression. The lamest playoff beard of 2008 had been shorn, butCrosby had kept that wispy mustache, at least for this night. He shook handsand wandered down the corridor to see his family.

The Cup belongedto 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 inspiredplays, taking hits like defenseman Brad Stuart's Game 6 blockbuster, which madeCrosby blanch but never discouraged his forecheck. While other young Penguinsforwards Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal swooned under the weight ofexpectations, Crosby was a factor until the final seconds, when he almostscored on a wicked backhander. In a finals crammed with indeliblemoments—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 MaximeTalbot's last-minute goal in regulation, which resuscitated the Penguins'season in Game 5—Crosby provided the coda.

In a perfectworld his shot would have ticked off Osgood's glove and into the net, and thePenguins would have won again in overtime, setting up a Game 7 that could havevaulted these finals into the pantheon. Of course, in a perfect world Crosbywould also be a better finisher. Considering the precociousness of this20-year-old, however—Crosby's 27 points tied Zetterberg for the playoff scoringlead—that imperfection is a cavil, an element of his game that, like hisplayoff beard, will improve over time.

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

The NHL's appeal could be seen in soaring TV ratingsand the STITCH COUNT IN THE PENGUINS' DRESSING ROOM.




Who'll win the NHL's major awards? Who'll go first inthe June 20 entry draft? Get up-to-the minute hockey coverage alloff-season.


PHOTOPhotograph by Lou CapozzolaHEY, GOOD LOOKING Zetterberg (40) and Chris Chelios embraced after the finals, in which Malone (above) twice broke his nose.PHOTOPhotograph by Lou Capozzola[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Lou CapozzolaDOWN, AND OUT A pair of one-goal losses meant that Staal (11), Crosby (87) & Co. had to watch the Wings rejoice at the Igloo.