25 YEARS LATER - THE REMATCH

2009 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW

 

Detroit Red Wings vs Pittsburgh Penguins – Take 2009

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.” – Def Leppard

Well, what can I tell you – it’s all come down to the rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup Final.  Can anyone honestly say when we started the playoffs 7 weeks ago we’d have expected this?  Going into the playoffs, on paper, I’m sure a few may have pondered the possibility, but I can think of only one person who correctly called it.  A cable and wireless client who ended up on my phone in early April had this to say: “I hope those Penguins show Marian Hossa what a big mistake he made signing with Detroit”.  Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?  While time will tell if he ultimately ends up being 100% correct, as you can see, he correctly called the finalists.  Even yours truly wasn’t feeling it when I picked the conference winners last round.

This is why our game of hockey is so great – you can expect the unexpected – anything can happen and usually does – and hey, maybe we’ll get a finals rematch once every 25 years or so.

Yes, folks, as every media outlet covering the finals has repeatedly reminded us 100 times by now, it’s been 25 years since the New York Islanders met the Edmonton Oilers for the 2nd straight year, and back in 1984, it was the Oilers prevailing in 5 games to win their first Stanley Cup, after getting schooled the previous year by the last true dynasty we’ve seen, the 4 time champion New York Islanders.  My, how times have changed!  The similarities between those two final series have yet to be seen.  As one caller into Sirius’ Hockey Night In Canada Radio put it – the only way it could have been exactly the same then would have been if Jari Kurri had signed with the Islanders as a free agent in the 1983 off season.  Touché.

Of course, now we’re supposedly in hockey’s new era.  Players are bigger, stronger and faster.  The NHL has a salary cap, so teams can’t keep their teams together as long as they used to.  Another thing to consider – by the time Sidney Crosby becomes an unrestricted free agent, he’ll become the youngest UFA in history.  Ultimately, the time for Pittsburgh, is now.  But, Detroit has been here before too, and won – and they have had different heroes every time.

Something surely will have to give, right!?  Well, maybe…don’t forget, these two franchises are the last two to win back to back championships – so it’s even more fitting they meet for the rematch.

Why I’m picking Pittsburgh to win The Stanley Cup: At the beginning of the season, the NHL ran a series of ads with players coming to life out of a picture – in one of them, a dejected Sidney Crosby after the Red Wings won the Cup came out and said “I never want to be in this picture again”.  Then, fade to black: “Is this the year”?  We probably never would have said yes in February, but this team has turned around something fierce.  They’ve added four Stanley Cup veteran players in Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin, Craig Adams and Ruslan Fedotenko.  Evgeni Malkin has finally figured out how to score in the playoffs.  Marc Andre Fleury finally looks like the goaltender they need him to be (was he outstanding in the four game sweep against Carolina or what?) – and Sidney Crosby – I’ve said it before, looks more mature, looks hungrier, and has the fire in his eyes I’ve only seen in a few players before.  While the comparisons to the 1983 and 1984 Oilers teams are plentiful, perhaps more fittingly, they can be compared to past Pittsburgh winning teams.  Crosby is Mario Lemieux, Malkin – Jaromir Jagr, Kunitz – Kevin Stevens, Guerin – compare to the veteran presence of Brian Trottier, Fleury –Tom Barrasso.  You just get the feeling with all the firepower and what they’ve been able to do with it should get their way against a less than 100% Red Wings.

But here is where this series is so tough to call – the past few games Detroit has been without their top players due to various ailments.  Their top defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom has not played.  Pavel Datsyuk has not played.  Kris Draper has not played.  Jonathan Ericsson has not played.  You get the idea.  Yet, the Red Wings motor on.  Their depth players – Dan Cleary, Darren Helm, Mikael Samuelsson, Valtteri Filppula, Tomas Holmstrom, and, even the guy they got out of Pittsburgh, Marian Hossa – they’ve all been instrumental.  Not to mention, their goaltending in Chris Osgood has also been good when they needed it to be.  To me, this is where I think Pittsburgh may have an edge – Osgood has not stolen a game, I mean really stolen a game in these playoffs.  Probably because Detroit plays a puck possession game – kind of hard to get outshot and outplayed when you always have the puck!  If we compare this series to the Eastern Conference final – in previous series Carolina would get outshot on many a night but Cam Ward would still make the big saves and steal games – until they met up with Pittsburgh.  The Penguins figured out a way to get to Ward, and the result was a four game sweep.  Certainly I’m not suggesting the same will happen here, but I am picking the Penguins to prevail.  Last year’s experience taught them something – and this year it seems nothing can stop them.

So how will Detroit be able to win their 11th Stanley Cup?  While past experience will certainly work in the Red Wings’ favor as always, one of the things I’ve noticed in this team is they seem to have lost a little bit of confidence.  They place more emphasis on their opponent – which is not a bad thing, you have to have respect for your opponent at all times – but as far as I can tell, the only player who is putting on a brave face is the goalie Chris Osgood – saying “we’ll be ready for them”.  Obviously at this point both teams can smell it, they’ll both want it.  The Red Wings will simply have to want it more.  Getting back their aforementioned players will help, but with such a quick turnaround for this series, one would think the schedule favors Pittsburgh.  Thanks to Conan O’Brien taking over The Tonight Show on Monday, the first two games, thanks to NBC, will be back to back – then the final, should it go the distance, will be spread out until June 12 – with some games having a two day rest in between.  Most importantly, Detroit can’t let this schedule be a distraction.  As much as they’ve vocalized they don’t like it, it is what it is, and if they’re going to win, they’ll have to make the most of it.

I don’t know, they may prove me wrong again, but so be it – I just don’t see it.  You need your best players at their best this time of year, and Detroit has made no bones about it, they don’t want to be without their top guns much longer – but even if they do return, how effective can they possibly be at hockey’s most important time of year?  Datsyuk even when he was healthy is probably the one missing link for Detroit – he’s done nothing.  It’s already been reported he’ll miss at least Game 1.  It seems clear Nicklas Lidstrom has taught this team a lot about how to play the game, because even in his absence, they don’t seem to miss much of a beat.  You can only depend on your depth to a certain extent, but so far they have been very dependable.

Pittsburgh seems on the right track this time, and if they can ever score in one of the first two games this time around, it will be a different series.  Of course, the Red Wings are always tough to beat, but they can be beat.  The Penguins have the younger legs, so playing back to back plays in their favor for sure.  Probably the biggest factor is going to be Marian Hossa – can he finally win it all?  I just don’t see it – while everyone was praising his play in Game 5 against Chicago, he still didn’t get on the scoreboard.  As we go deeper, we don’t need razzle dazzle, we need goals to actually go in.

Either way, let’s bring it on and get on with it – with hindsight being 20/20, we’ll have lots of time to discuss what happened after the fact – besides, summer is fast approaching!

Prediction: Penguins in 6

 

ALONG THE BOARDS

So, the Jim Balsillie/Phoenix Coyotes situation took an interesting twist over the past couple of weeks.  Not only did the judge decide to send the case to a mediator to decide if majority owner Jerry Moyes had the legal right to declare bankruptcy in the first place, but by June 9, the judge also wants to be able to make a ruling on whether or not the team can relocate – so that he can go on vacation!  If we thought Balsillie was trying to backdoor the process before – now we know he is – after the first court session, Balsillie was lobbying with the other 29 owners to accept him into the “brotherhood” of the NHL.  Um, question - isn't this a prerequisite to making an offer on a team?  Of course, if it’s ruled the NHL regains control of the team, all of this will be for naught.  I am watching this story with great interest, so don’t miss the next article.  No matter what happens, it looks like Hamilton’s Copps Colliseum is about to get a major makeover to make it NHL ready, if and when a team becomes available.

I told you a story last time around about Jonathan Roy, Patrick Roy’s son who has started a career in Pop/Rock music – well, his debut CD “What I’ve Become” was released this week.  Let me just say this – Justin Timberlake he ain’t.  Somewhere in this small world of ours, Michael Jackson is laughing like a madman.  The official report this week was Jackson delayed the start of his tour because he wants it to be just right.  Rumor has it he heard Roy’s CD and became hysterical.  King of pop?  Not!  Well, listen – in all seriousness, at least, somehow, this guy has a record deal.  As for me, well I can’t sing, and I’m not about to go William Hung on everybody, nor do I have any desire to be the next Canadian Idol or being a contestant on America’s Got Talent – that you can be rest assured!  Also, I don’t speak French, so Star Academie isn’t happening either.  Alright – enough of this – moving right along…

As for Mr. Roy, Patrick that is – after speculation ran rampant he’d be the next head coach of the Colorado Avalanche – the 2nd greatest goaltender of all time put those rumors to rest as he announced he turned down an offer to be coach.  Speculation now is Roy will wait for bigger fish to fry – a position with the Montreal Canadiens – something Roy has not confirmed or denied.  So it’s business as usual for the coach of the QMJHL’s Quebec Ramparts.

Mike Danton could soon be a free man.  The former St. Louis Blues and New Jersey Devils player, you’ll recall was imprisoned after pleading guilty to a murder-for-hire plot targeting his former agent David Frost.  The Kingston Whig-Standard reported Danton has been transferred from Millhaven Institution in Kingston to the smaller minimum-security Pittsburgh Institution, also in Kingston.  Typically, inmates are moved to minimum-security as preparation for release either on parole or on good behavior upon serving 2/3 of their sentence.  After he had served 4 years in the United States, he was transferred to Millhaven here in Canada on March 19 to complete his sentence, and is now eligible for parole.  However, Officials with Corrections Canada and the National Parole Board say the process could take several months for Danton to be fully assessed and for reports to be prepared.  Being transferred to minimum-security basically means he is not a threat to escape, and even if we was to escape he would not be considered a high risk on society.  In 87 career NHL games, Danton had 9 goals, 5 assists and 182 penalty minutes.

In more former players in trouble with the law news, former Montreal Canadiens icon Guy Lafleur will reportedly appeal his conviction on a charge of giving contradictory testimony.  Lafleur was found guilty of giving the contradictory testimony during his son Mark’s bail hearing in 2007.  Lafleur told the court his son had respected curfew while he actually had spent two nights at a hotel with his girlfriend.  Sentencing is scheduled for June 18, and Lafleur could either face community service or a fine.  God forbid if he can’t attend the Habs’ home games.

There will be a new look behind the bench in Edmonton next season – as the Oilers have decided on Pat Quinn as their new head coach to replace Craig MacTavish, and Tom Renney his assistant.  Kelly Buchberger, the only member of MacT’s staff the Oilers kept around, will be second assistant coach.  Towards the end of the season there were clearly a few passengers on the team – this will stop right here and now with Quinn in control.  Always one to be able to get the best out of what he has, it has taken some time for Pat to get back to the NHL – but you just got a feeling after he helped coach Team Canada’s Junior team to their fifth straight Gold Medal it would just be a matter of time.  Best of luck Pat, you’re going to need it.

With Renney now in the fold, don’t be surprised to see Jaromir Jagr make an NHL comeback as a member of the Oilers.  The word on the street was Edmonton was very interested in his services before he signed the contract in Russia.  Since hearing about this, Jagr has been on record as saying if he was to return to the NHL, Edmonton would be his first choice.  Since he got along with Renney so well in New York, don’t rule out the possibility.  I’m not really sure what, if anything, he has left in the tank, especially for a team as speed oriented at the Oilers are, but as I always say, stay tuned.  It was Jagr after all with the winning goal in overtime the last time he faced Edmonton at Madison Square Garden almost 2 ½ years ago.

Richard Thomas.  If you know anything about the steroid trade, you’ve heard his name before.  The NHL is launching a thorough investigation into allegations the central Florida man sold to professional athletes, including members of the Washington Capitals.  Thomas was arrested in a major anabolic steroids bust, and boasted profusely about selling steroids to professional baseball, hockey and football players.  “You name the sport, I’ve sold steroids to athletes who play it”, he told the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.  Authorities say Thomas didn’t mention names, and there is no evidence to suggest he sold to players on those teams.  NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly issued a statement: “The Capitals have no knowledge of any aspect of this allegation.  Capitals players, as all NHL players, were subjected to no-notice testing three times in each of the past two seasons pursuant to the terms of the CBA and there was no indication of any improper conduct or wrongdoing.  Even though there are no specifics provided in the story and we have no reason, at this point, to believe the allegations are true, the NHL takes all matters of this nature very seriously and will conduct a prompt investigation.”  Investigators who searched Thomas’ house in Lakeland, Florida found thousands of pills, syringes and injectable liquids with an estimated value of $100,000 US, along with several weapons, including semi automatic handguns.  So, with all the evidence on the kitchen table, wouldn’t it make sense for Thomas to squeal like a pig, even if he isn’t telling the truth?  Clearly, he had no idea the Feds were watching.

Personally, if you ask me, it’s inconceivable to think the NHL could be 100% immune from the effect steroids have had on pro sports – and consider this – the NHL does not test its players during the playoffs.  Certainly I’m not suggesting anything here, but if the league believes its sport is 100% steroid free, perhaps they need a serious reality check.  This could be and should be something they can go to the NHLPA with in future CBA negotiations.  Anyway, so far only a handful of players have been caught indulging in the juice (Bryan Berard comes to mind), but how many more?  Surely they don’t expect us to believe that’s really Gatorade in those bottles, do they?  Given this is not the first time we’ve heard such allegations, you can be sure the NHL will pay close attention – especially with the Olympics fast approaching.  And if the league wants to really put a lid on these sorts of allegations from everybody from Thomas all the way to the head of the International Olympic Committee, they’ll seriously revisit their drug testing policy and fast.  That means even a ban on Sudafed.

And ending on a sad note this time around, we lost one of the greatest two way players to ever play the game in the 90s, as Peter Zezel has passed away.  Zezel, you’ll recall, was instrumental in helping the Toronto Maple Leafs 1993 and 1994 runs to the Conference finals.  With everything Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark added, Zezel complemented.  Not only could he add secondary scoring, he was a great face off man.  He played 15 NHL seasons, including stops in Toronto, Vancouver, and Philadelphia.  He was a very likeable guy, always active in the community and an all around good guy.  Peter had actually retired way too early from the sport 10 years ago after being diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, hemolytic anemia.  He died from complications related to the disorder during recent surgery.  He was 44 – still young enough to play.  Good bye and good luck Mr. Zezel – you know, wherever you’ve gone, they’ll have one hell of a team.

So for now I’ll bid y’all adieu.  Enjoy the finals, and stay tuned right here for more things puck, and as always, don’t forget, I blog during the games and whenever else I feel like it.  Eat.  Sleep.  Hockey!  You dig?  Good.

 

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