The Finals are here! The Finals are here! In what has been easily the most exciting playoffs in recent memory, hockey fans are going to be treated to a rematch of last year’s final.
The returning Champions, the Detroit Red Wings, the closest thing to a modern dynasty with four Stanley Cups in eleven years, are going to attempt to make it five in twelve.
And then, there are the challengers (to use boxing terminology), the young, up-and-coming flightless birds from the East, the Pittsburgh Penguins, returning to play the team that beat them last year.
Let’s break down each team, using the Gilligan’s Island Stereotype Model for Sports Success (I just made it up!):
Detroit Red Wings
Nick Lidstrom, the captain of the S.S. Red Wings is the epitome of success. Among his numerous accomplishments, he has six Norris trophies (as best defensemen) in the bag, and possibly another on the way this year. He’s got four Stanley Cup rings, and would love to pick up a fifth (“one for the thumb”). He’s heading into the Finals hurt, but expected to play. Even with a limp he’s better than 90% of the NHL’s D-men. 13 points in 14 games is nothing to sneeze at from a defenseman.
Pavel Datsyuk has to be the Gilligan for Detroit. The title character, even if he’s not the captain of the ship. Datsyuk was a beast in the regular season, finishing with 97 points, while being in the mix for the Hart, Selke, and Lady Byng awards, with him favoured to win the Selke (best defensive forward) and the Lady Byng (most sportsmanlike). That being said, Datsyuk has missed three games so far in the playoffs and has not been all that good when he was in. 7 points (and only one goal) in thirteen games is not what you expect from the likes of Datsyuk.
Marian Hossa jumps to mind when one thinks of the condescending Millionaire, Thurston Howell III from the show. Hossa was here last year, only on the other bench. That’s right, after going to battle with his teammates through the grueling Stanley Cup drive, he walked away in free agency to join the team that defeated them in the final. Apparently Hossa felt that Detroit gave him the best chance at winning a cup. Pittsburgh had offered him a five year deal to be paid in wheelbarrows of rubies and bricks of gold, and instead he took a one year deal in Detroit at a “bargain” $7.45M (the highest paycheque on the team, tying him with Lidstrom, because no one gets more than Lidstrom). For his part, Hossa is going to need to take it up another notch, as 12 points at $7.45M doesn’t seem like Mr. Illitch, owner of the Wings, is getting his money’s worth.
The Millionaire’s Wife:
Dan Cleary gets the call as the supporting character you’d be forgiven if you forgot existed. The thing is, though, that unlike that horrible woman, Cleary has been pulling more than his weight this year, chipping in 8 goals (and 6 assists), including two game winners.
The Movie Star:
Johan Franzen is Detroit’s Ginger. The Mule as he’s known, is also a redhead (though I doubt he could pull off an evening gown – stay tuned for the NHL awards night…) and leads the Red Wings offense with 10 goals and 9 assists.
The Girl Next Door:
Chris Osgood gets no respect. He’s a lot like the reverse Mary Ann. On the show, the characters on the Island didn’t realize how hot she was, but the fans at home were drooling. With Osgood, it’s the opposite, as his teammates sing his praise, but the media and fans alike still don’t get it. He’s on his way to winning a fourth Stanley Cup, will that be enough? Regardless, through three rounds, his 2.06 Goals Against Average and .925 Save Percentage are nearly the best in both categories. And he’s still here, which is more than can be said for those above him. 12 wins is a stat he shares only with M-A Fleury. I called him out on his terrible regular season stats, and he had to go and prove me wrong. You’re welcome, Detroit.
Henrik Zetterberg does it all. Between him and Datsyuk, the Red Wings possess the best two-way players in the game. When Lidstrom retires (in what, another ten years? that guy is a monster) don’t be surprised when Z becomes the next great captain for Detroit, having been groomed into the league by Steve Yzerman (who wasn’t so bad, himself). 9 goals, 9 assists so far. Not what he put up last year, but a solid contribution, placing him fifth in playoff scoring, fourth among active players.
Oh, Sidney Crosby is the Skipper of this team, and a pretty darn good one, at that, even if his playoff mustachio draws more comparison to d’Artagnan than Dan Auerbach. His drive and determination in this year’s edition of the playoffs is something we haven’t seen in quite some time. I also like his bold decision to touch the Prince of Wales trophy after the Pens won the Eastern Conference. Some superstitious folks won’t like it, however, it’s not the first time that a captain has held it and gone on to win the Cup, so we’ll see if that works for Crosby. Besides, last year he didn’t touch it and they lost. So if you’re a superstitious fellow, you have to reconcile yourself with that. At the end of the day, superstitions aside, the best team will win, right? Mr. Crosby is doing his best to win, tied for playoff scoring with his pal Malkin with 28 points through three rounds, making a complete mockery of the race (He and Zetterberg tied last year for tops with 27 points…total). If this keeps up can we award them a shared Conn Smythe trophy for playoff MVPs?
If you’ve ever looked analytically at Evgeni Malkin’s face you’d see a bit of Bob Denver, the goofy smile, the lack of facial hair, despite nearly two months of playoffs, etc. 2008-2009 was a break-out year for Geno, in the regular season, he led all players with 113 points, and he’s carried on that drive into the post-season (a criticism in years past), co-leading the charts with his big buddy Sidney. His 12 goals (3 game winners) are second only to Crosby’s 14, which is great news considering both are considered primarily playmakers. The two are drawing favourable comparisons to another Penguins duo from the past, the highest praise possible.
This space was reserved for Marian Hossa, for five years and a wheelbarrow of rubies and bricks of gold. Now, it is filled with an unspoken grudge to prove him wrong.
The Millionaire’s Wife:
The most unnoticed guy on Pittsburgh’s cast has to be Mark Eaton. Yes, Mark Eaton. I know, I know, you don’t believe me that there is someone with that name on the Penguins, but I assure you, Mark Eaton is real. He’s also the pride of Delaware, the unnoticed state. As a defenseman, playing nearly 18 minutes a night, Eaton has provided 4 goals and 2 assists. Not gaudy numbers, but he’s done it while posting a +10 on the team, third best after Crosby and Bill Guerin. Should I also mention he only had 4 goals in 68 regular season games? Oh, that Mark Eaton.
The Movie Star:
Marc-Andre Fleury, the affable, always smiling keeper, had been lauded as one of the best goalie prospects for what seems to be ages, stemming back to his World Junior days. Well, last season, he shed that “prospect” title and carried his team to the Stanley Cup Finals. Some people had wondered whether that was a fluke, and if he’d be able to do it again. Well, we’re here, aren’t we? Along with Cam Ward, Fleury has best used these playoffs as a message to the Canadian 2010 Olympic Team: I want in. Early on, in my first round predictions, I said Fleury was the Penguins question mark. I humbly eat my words.
The Girl Next Door:
We sometimes forget Sergei Gonchar, don’t we? When we discuss the star defensemen in the league, we praise Lidstrom (rightfully so), and then the new “it” guys: Mike Green, Shea Weber, etc. and forget that Gonchar is possibly one of the best in his generation, a star in the league before anyone had heard of his teammates Crosby and Malkin. In 929 career games he’s put up 634 points in the regular season and then matched that pace in the playoffs with 66 points in 98 playoff games. He’s not Lidstrom, nor is anyone else, but right after the Detroit captain in playoff scoring by D-men this year is Gonchar, one point back, with 12. Like Lidstrom, Gonchar is playing hurt through the playoffs. Perhaps they’ll have an All-Star edition of “Limping Future Hall-of-Fame Defensemen”.
Bill Guerin is rightfully the grizzled vet on a young team. He’s taken over the role that other mentor figures (Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi come to mind) have provided for the Pens. He knows his role is a supporting one and is doing his best to help Crosby & Co. go the distance, chipping in 7 goals and 7 assists (his best career post-season), riding shotgun most of the way with the Skipper. If he can figure out a way to turn a coconut into a Stanley Cup, we’re done.
As I mentioned in the last round, at this point both teams are terrific. For me, it came down to a virtual coin toss. I figure the disappointment of last year, mixed with the fiery drive down the stretch (not to mention the quick start) will favour the young guys, with Pittsburgh winning in a thrilling six games.