At last, the most recognizable trophy in sports will be up for grabs as the Stanley Cup Playoffs have reached its final round. The Pittsburgh Penguins will represent the Eastern Conference and the Detroit Red Wings will represent the Western Conference, giving the NHL exactly what it needs to create more interest in the league: an incredible match-up featuring the new face of the league, Sidney Crosby, and the best defenseman in the game's history, Nicklas Lidstrom. I'm so excited to watch these two teams face off. Henrik Zetterberg vs. Sidney Crosby. Pavel Datsyuk vs. Evgeni Malkin. You couldn't dream up a better playoff series to end the 2008 season.
As always, I'll take a look back at the previous round and my predictions for those series. In the Eastern Conference Finals, I picked the Pittsburgh Penguins to beat the Philadelphia Flyers in five games and they did just that. The Penguins jumped out to a 3-0 series lead before losing game four in Philly and then closing out the series with a blowout win at home. The Pittsburgh powerplay looked incredible, again, and the regular-season-caliber Martin Biron showed up, which left the Flyers dead in the water. Biron's goaltending was the only reason that Philadelphia even reached the conference finals and so when it disappeared, they had nothing left to match-up with the Penguins.
My psychic abilities were strong in this round, as I picked the Red Wings to beat the Dallas Stars in six games and they confirmed my prediction exactly. Of course, the 3-0 series lead for the Red Wings looked a lot worse when the Stars came back to win two straight games and take the series back to Dallas, but the Wings dispatched Dallas with three first period goals on the road in game six and calmed my nerves. Detroit looked very strong in the first three games and in the final game, using their balanced offensive and defensive attack to jump on the Stars early and force them into mistakes and turnovers. Unfortunately, the Wings looked vulnerable in the two games they lost and need to show improvement if they are to raise Lord Stanley's Cup in the coming weeks.
And now, my preview of the Stanley Cup Final Match-Up:
Offense-Defense Analysis: The Penguins vaunted offensive attack will face many talented, veteran Red Wings defensemen, and it will be very interesting to see who wins that battle. Pittsburgh's 1A line of Crosby, Marian Hossa, and Pascal DuPuis will likely face Detroit's best defensive pairing in Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, both of whom have won multiple Stanley Cups. The Penguins' 1B line of Malkin, Petr Sykora, and Ryan Malone will likely be up against Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart, both of whom play aggressive defense and take away the open ice with bone-crunching hits. The Red Wings will rely on Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for most of their scoring but they thrive on secondary scoring from experienced guys like Kris Draper, Dan Cleary, and Valtteri Filppula. Another key will be which young duo (Crosby-Malkin or Datsyuk-Zetterberg) can help his team the most, since those four players are their team's best and they will need to play like it for their respective teams if they want to win the Cup.
Goaltending: The Red Wings have a talented veteran in Chris Osgood between the pipes while the Penguins will call on Marc Andre-Fleury to lead them to greatness. Both Osgood and Andre-Fleury have played very well to help their teams get this far, and I think they will both keep their teams in games and play fairly evenly. Andre-Fleury has never played in the Stanley Cup Finals while Ozzie single-handedly helped Detroit win the Cup in 1998 as a 25-year-old. That will help him deal with some of the tough scoring chances he'll face against the great Penguins offense and I see him coming out with a very slight edge over Fleury, who might buckle under the pressure of his first appearance in the Finals.
Most Important Factor: The most important aspect of this series is how well the Red Wings' penalty kill can prevent the Pittsburgh powerplay from scoring. Sergei Gonchar is only a point behind Kronwall for the playoff leading defenseman and he's the anchor on the first powerplay unit for the Pens which often includes Crosby, Malkin, Hossa, and Malone. All of those guys can move the puck, skate fast, shoot accurately and shoot quickly, so it is extremely important that Detroit limits Pittsburgh's powerplay opportunities.
Most Important Factor No One is Talking About: Johan Franzen. "Mule" had 12 goals in the first 11 games of the playoffs but he has been absent in the past five games with concussion-like symptoms. The Red Wings are being very quiet about his status and the severity of these headaches that he's had, but if he can somehow make it back for the Finals, it would make a huge difference. He was the best player in the playoffs for the first two rounds and would be a huge asset to the Wings if he can come back and play at the level he did against Nashville and Colorado.
Best Match-Up: Sidney Crosby vs. Nicklas Lidstrom. The "next Gretzky" has vision on the ice that I haven't seen since...well, the Great One himself. Lidstrom, meanwhile, has racked up five Norris trophies as the best defenseman in the NHL and will almost certainly win his sixth this spring. Crosby's first experience in the Stanley Cup Finals will definitely not be his last, but unless he can force Lidstrom into some mistakes and turn those into goals for the Penguins, his first time in the Finals won't be one to remember.
Prediction: Detroit in six games. As much as I'd like the Red Wings to win at home, I don't think they can close out the Penguins in as little as five games. They are just too good. On the other hand, I don't think the Penguins have enough experience to make the series go a full seven games. As the Prophet Melrose once said, the greats often lose before they win, as the dynastic Oilers did with Gretzky in the early 1980's. I think the Penguins will win multiple Stanley Cups with Sid the Kid and Malkin in the future, but this is the Red Wings' year.
I hope you enjoyed the latest installment of my NHL playoff previews and will watch the Stanley Cup Finals on Versus for games one and two and on NBC for games three through seven. The NHL made a huge mistake with their TV deal after the lockout but a series like this one could help attract the casual fan back to the game and hopefully, an agreement with ESPN in the future. Hope you are all enjoying the month of May and getting ready for those hot, Summer days. Until next time, Go Wings!