2008 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW

TWO IS TOO MANY

 

I’ve said it 100 times before – there is only one Stanley Cup, therefore there can only be one champion – and do you know what?  The ice isn’t big enough for the two teams we are about to see skate it out on the ice for the silver mug – so let’s cut the crap already and get it on!

 

2008 STANLEY CUP FINAL

Detroit Red Wings vs Pittsburgh Penguins

If you’re a television broadcasting executive, this series has to be a dream matchup made in heaven.  You have a market with a consistency for excellence on and off the ice drawing huge ratings anytime they’re on the air, up against the quote unquote “poster child” of the new NHL.  Make no mistake – as much as the ratings have increased tenfold in Canada thanks to three straight finals involving a Canadian franchise, south of the border, the ratings of the final over the last five seasons have been nothing short of scary.  I’ve always said in Canada you could stage a hockey game at the North Pole involving a team from Africa and a team from Australia and it would still garner the best ratings of any T.V. sitcom any day of the week.  South of the 49th parallel?  Not so much.  So is it any wonder having Detroit and Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final has already become the most anticipated final series of the decade?

A bit of irony surrounds this final gem of a series – we have two franchises who just so happen to have been the last two to manage winning the Cup in back to back seasons – Detroit in 1997 and 1998, and Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992.  Both had high expectations for a three peat, and probably would have gotten there too, had it not been for a little adversity along the way.  Pittsburgh has managed a semi-final and two second round appearances since their two straight Cup wins, followed by what seemed like a lifetime in the basement of the NHL standings, and Detroit has since won another Cup in 2002.  Which team has enough left in the tank to win another championship?  We’re about to find out.

Why Detroit should win: One word: experience.  The Red Wings are always at or near the top of their division and conference, and for good reason.  They have the right mix of veterans who have played this game for a very long time and know what it takes to win (Lidstrom, Chelios, Drake).  They have a plethora of good young talent and they’ve finally learned how to produce at this level, and their presence has paid dividends (Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Franzen).  We’ve heard a lot about how teams face adversity and how teams able to overcome it are rewarded.  Well, needless to say, the seasons between the three Cup wins haven’t been anything short of disappointing.  The old adage about learning how to lose before learning how to win is a course the Red Wings have taken before and repeated several times.  Aside from this year, they’ve only been to the final four once since their last championship, and were pushed aside in six by last year’s champs.  In previous years they’ve suffered the disappointment of losing in the first or second round more often than they’d like to remember.  A lasting image for me was seeing Steve Yzerman on the bench at Rexall Place in Game 6 of the Detroit-Edmonton series in 2006 just minutes before the Oilers eliminated his team, and just the sheer wonder of what must have been going through his mind, knowing he had probably played his last game.  But, Yzerman is still with the team at the management level, and the players who remain all remember what it took to get back to this stage, and they all now know what they need to do to hoist a fourth Cup in 10 years, and 11th in franchise history.  If they can do it, only Montreal will have won more total championships, and even though they’ll be tied with Toronto, Detroit will have the distinction of having the most in the past decade.  I’ve mentioned the players names in previous rounds – by now we all know who plays on this team and what they represent.  They know the opportunity they’re faced with and are determined to seize the moment.  It’s worth mentioning again – Nicklas Lidstrom can be the first European player to captain a winning team if the Red Wings – something we’ve heard about so often but have yet to witness.

I know there was a lot of concern about Detroit’s inability to close out Dallas in a sweep in the last round after winning the first three games – but if you ask me, they weren’t even trying in Game 4, and had to fend off a desperate team in Game 5.  In Game 6, on the road, they finally came back to reality and got back to playing the type of hockey they’ve been playing all year, and the type of hockey they’ll need to play to win it all.  Of course, Pittsburgh may have the undefeated streak at home working in their favor, but it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen both teams in the final win all their home games, and winning the President’s Trophy gives Detroit home ice advantage.  The Red Wings, put simply, just keep rolling and they are cocked and loaded.  Getting their top playoff “Mule” Johan Franzen back in the lineup will certainly give them an emotional lift.

How Pittsburgh could win: This series is so hard to call it’s not even funny.  You already read about the experience factor in Detroit.  There are 23 Stanley Cup rings on the team spread among 10 players.  Is it a story of too many cooks?  The Penguins will argue it’s true until they’re as blue in the face as their old school uniforms.  No player has ever won the Stanley Cup in just their 3rd NHL season – but if Sidney Crosby can lead his team to victory, he’ll be the first in a long line of firsts for this guy.  He’s already the youngest player to win the scoring title, the youngest captain of any in the league, and youngest player to win the Stanley Cup would look good on any hockey resume.  But let’s be honest – the team wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for the efforts of one Mario Lemieux, the one man who believed more than anybody this franchise can and will succeed in Pittsburgh.  It was just a little over a year ago a deal was finally struck with the city to build a much needed new arena, and just months before the team’s future was never in more doubt, as interest came from as far west as Kansas City and as far north as Kitchener Ontario (the Winnipeg rumors notwithstanding).  One of the benefits of finishing in the basement as many years as this team did was one of the reasons the Penguins were able to draft a player of Crosby’s caliber in the first place.  From there, the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Marc- Andre Fleury before him, mixed with the right mix of veteran leadership and snipers have turned this team into the powerhouse they’ve become.  Sure, Gary Roberts can will a team to victory all by himself, he’s done it many times before, yet, that second Cup has eluded him since 1989.  Marian Hossa has played on some pretty good teams before, including a Portland Winter Hawks team that won the Memorial Cup in 1998.  While he came close to being here with Ottawa, this is his first trip to the finals.  Georges Laraque, who has become somewhat of a modern day Dave Semenko, was in the 2006 finals, but of course didn’t win it.  Only four Stanley Cup rings can be found on this young Pittsburgh team spread among three players – and Darryl Sydor has two of them – the only problem is he hasn’t played a game since March 31st!  It’s unfortunate because he has 30 points and is a plus 9 in 55 career games against Detroit. 

If you’re a fan of the trap (and who honestly can say they are?), then perhaps you would be better off watching the next local major Pee Wee tournament.  Put simply, these teams like to skate, shoot and score in bunches.  Both teams are disciplined; both can play defensively when necessary, but will also capitalize on the other team’s mistakes faster than the goal judge can keep up.  Put simply folks, we’re about to end the season with a bang – so buckle up and may the best team win!

The last time two pro franchises from both cities met was way back in 1909 – when the Pittsburgh Pirates and Detroit Tigers met in the World Series.  Hall of Famer Ty Cobb helped extend the series to a seventh game, but the story of the series was another Hall of Famer – shortstop Honus Wagner for Pittsburgh, as the Pirates won 4 games to 3.  One gets the feeling this Stanley Cup final will produce legends of its own.

Will the new kids on the block be able to overcome the experience of Motown?  I say no way, San Jose!  Not to take anything away from Crosby, Malkin and Hossa, but this series more than anything will be a huge learning experience for the team Mario built.  And this is a truly fitting stat – by the time Game 4 is over, the Penguins will have sold out exactly 66 straight home games since the season started.  Enjoy them while you can, fans of Pittsburgh – you deserve to be here – and go easy on the boys, they’re still learning how to win.

Prediction: Red Wings in 5

 

ALONG THE BOARDS

So, once again, the shallow mind of one Don Cherry has put his mouth before his brain.  As entertaining as he can often be, he is dead wrong when it comes to his assessment of Team Canada’s loss to Team Russia in the recent World Championship.  In case you missed it, Canada had a 4-1 lead going into the 3rd period of the Gold medal game, then the Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk show reconvened – by the time regulation time was over, the Russians had tied the game 4-4.  In overtime, last year’s hero Shane Doan became this year’s heel.  He was called for delay of game on one of those wonderful “puck over the glass” plays everybody loves.  And of course, Kovalchuk, as he so often does (although it could have been anybody’s goal to score) finished it for Russia, winning the Gold and relegating Canada to Silver.

So while Pittsburgh was finishing off Philadelphia, in his usual Coach’s Corner segment, Cherry went on yet another epic rant on how stupid the rule is and how it cost us the game.  Excuse me?  Now I’ll be the first to agree with him on one thing - the rule is stupid, but to say it cost Canada the game is ridiculous!  Here’s a question.  Why didn’t somebody, anybody, remind the players after the 2nd intermission there was still 20 minutes of hockey to play?  We’ve seen it a million times before – the dreaded three goal lead – the most dangerous lead in hockey (just ask the New York Rangers).  Every time it seems, the team with the lead gets complacent, and more often than not all it takes is one goal from the other team, and we have ourselves a game.  Of any team to give life to, a team with Ovechkin and Kovalchuk is the wrong team to allow back in any hockey game, at any level.  If they had been playing shinny it wouldn’t even have been close – overtime wouldn’t have been necessary.  Well, I guess you can’t blame Don for being a patriotic Canadian.  It’s one of the qualities I most respect him for, but I just wish he’d look at the big picture once in awhile.  By the way, we all know you were Coach of the Year in 1976 – stop reminding us already!  Nowadays it has about as much relevance as Toronto’s last Stanley Cup win.

While we’re on the topic of the International Ice Hockey Federation, recently they compiled a list of the 100 top hockey moments of the past century, in celebration of their 100th anniversary.  The Team USA “Miracle On Ice” was named #1, Paul Henderson and Team Canada’s Summit Series win in 1972 was #2, while Russia’s 7-3 win in Montreal in Game 1 of the series was #3.  Further to the list, an all century team was named, and not surprisingly Wayne Gretzky was named top centre.  Surprisingly, he was the only Canadian player named to the team.  I’m guessing the whole point behind all of this was to showcase hockey as an International sport, but let’s get real – in Canada the Henderson goal will always be the defining moment of the sport we invented – period.  I mean, come on – it happened a year before I was even born, yet it’s probably the one sports highlight I’ve seen more than any other.  The rest of the series was pale in comparison, if you take away the Bobby Clarke slash on Valeri Kharlamov.

For those of you who thought I was picking on Sean Avery again last article when I wished him best of luck at Vogue magazine – I wasn’t.  It really is true – Avery actually did accept a summer position working for the popular fashion publication.  Although, come to think of it - it is kind of funny, yet fitting when you consider his personality.  Hey whatever, you’ll never be able to blame the guy for making the most of and having fun with his life.  Did anybody ever really find out what was wrong with him after Game 4 against Pittsburgh?  OK, so now I’m picking on him, but I’ll leave him alone now – without him where would the Rangers be? – Now there’s the scariest question of them all!

It hasn’t been the greatest year for Ottawa and local based hockey teams.  We all know the Senators were swept out of the playoffs before they were able to warm up.  In the OHL, the 67s suffered a similar fate, getting swept by the Oshawa Generals.  Now in the QMJHL, the team from across the river, the Gatineau Olympiques, did manage to go all the way and win the Quebec junior league championship, earning a berth in the CHL’s Memorial Cup tournament, but then, they also got swept in a mere three games of the round robin.  As they say, better luck next year and thanks for the memories?!  Well, at least there’s good news on the baseball front this summer as the Ottawa Rapides debut in the CanAm Triple A baseball league.  They’ll occupy the same stadium left vacant by the Ottawa Lynx.  No major league affiliation = lower ticket prices = (hopefully) more fans at the games.

Speaking of the Ottawa Senators – is Pat Burns in their future?  It’s been reported part of the reason Dany Heatley played some of his best hockey of the year in his MVP performance at the World Championship was due to a great rapport gained with Burns.  Maybe, but you can’t really rest the blame of the Sens’ season on Heatley.  You can’t compare a short tournament to an 82 game season.  Had it not been for the shoulder injury he would have hit 50 goals again – he managed 41 as it was – pretty damn good if you ask me.  As for Burns, I’ll tell you this much – if Bryan Murray can make it happen, there will be no more nonsense at Scotiabank Place.

I’d like to know who is responsible for some of the silly rumors out there, especially given we still have a final round of playoffs to go – but without mentioning names, somebody out there suggested the Philadelphia Flyers might be looking to trade R.J. Umberger to Nashville for Ryan Suter?!  I can tell you all right now, even though Umberger is a restricted free agent, after the playoff he had the Flyers brass would be retarded not to get his name on a new contract.  In the event a team actually makes an offer sheet, the offer should be matched immediately, no questions asked.  I can understand the reasoning here – Philly already has the likes of Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell, but I have to wonder just how willing the Predators would be to get rid of another up and coming defenseman – especially to an Eastern Conference semi-finalist?  I can’t even imagine it for one second.

It seems Jeremy Roenick isn’t hanging them up just yet – he’s just signed on for one more swan song with the San Jose Sharks.  My guess is he liked what he saw this year and believes he still has a shot at glory.  One would have to think with a new coach next season the Sharks will be a team to be reckoned with – another reason Detroit needs to win now.  You know the Sharks will be there, Dallas should be better, Anaheim will be back – the West just keeps getting better and better.  Somewhere deep down, I’m actually happy to see him give it another go.  Good for him.

If it’s not broke don’t fix it – or at least this is the mentality Francois Giguere, Vice President and General Manager of the Colorado Avalanche is adopting.  Tony Granato will be back behind the bench as head coach next season, after dropping into the assistant coach role when Joel Quenneville was hired.  Now with Quenneville gone, Granato will have to prove he is the man for the job, again.  Looking over the career stats – in the two seasons prior to the lockout he had a coaching record of 72-33-17-11, giving him a wins percentage of .647 – good enough for best overall in franchise history.  It’s the playoff record needing a lot of work.  You can bet another second round sweep will not go over well with team brass.

So here we are again, another NHL season almost over – can you believe it?  In future columns, I have a few ideas on how to mix it up and keep the content fresh and relevant, but you’ll just have to keep checking back to find out what I have in store for you.  If you can believe this, I recently took a trip down memory lane when I went back and read over my first ten articles ever (as long ago as that seems).  One of the things I’ve decided I’m going to do is bring back the “Who Is This Guy?” part of the column, where I’ll feature a player who’s come out of seemingly nowhere to impact his team on a consistent basis.  Franzen and Umberger could have been perfect examples if we use this playoff run as the measuring stick.

Another idea I have is a “Where Are They Now?” section, where I’ll pick a former NHL player and answer the proverbial question.  I’m thinking Alexei Yashin and Alexandre Daigle might be good first picks, and not just because they were first round draft picks.  Here’s someone you haven’t heard about in awhile: Jason Krog.  Instrumental in Anaheim’s 2003 playoff run, while the Atlanta Thrashers hold his rights nowadays, he’s been relegated to the farm team, the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.  As of this writing the Wolves are ahead 3-1 in the Calder Cup Western Conference final series against the Toronto Marlies.  Another player you haven’t heard about in awhile playing on the same Chicago team?  Joel Kwiatkowski.  Stay tuned.

Enjoy the finals everybody and have a great summer.  As always, there’ll be lots of puck to talk about before long, and you know if it’s worth mentioning, you’ll read about it here.  Of course, for up to the minute news or just if you’re interested in reading what random thoughts I have from time to time, you can always read my blog.  And don’t forget about the NHL Awards on June 12th.

 

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