Players, plots and things to watch in the Stanley Cup finals
There is great irony in Marian Hossa's Cup quest going through Pittsburgh
The Penguins won't be awed by the magnitude of the Cup final this time
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury must force Detroit to play catch-up
As the Red Wings and Penguins meet for an encore of last year's Stanley Cup finals, story lines abound. Here's a grab bag of things to watch as the series unfolds.
It's always interesting to look at where two teams intersect. In this case, the most intriguing and ironic point is Marian Hossa's defection from the Penguins to the Red Wings via off-season free agency. He came to Detroit because he felt they had the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup. Now, he has his opportunity to deliver as a self-fulfilling prophecy, but he must go through his former team to do it. Surely that will make for a much more galling disappointment should Detroit come up short. Hossa has been relatively quiet so far in playoffs (six goals, 12 points in 16 games), but he has had a big two-goal game in each round that came at precisely the right time, including his outburst in Game 4 of the Western Conference final against Chicago.
Hossa is only the second player ever to switch sides in successive Stanley Cup finals. John MacMillan played one game for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1963 and four the following spring for the Red Wings, who picked him up on waivers. This means Hossa is the first player of star status to play both sides two years running. The rarity is explainable since there have only been five repeat finals in the last 50 years, the last being between the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders in 1984.
Speaking of rarities, Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma is vying to become the fourth rookie coach to capture the Cup since 1956 -- and the only one outside the Montreal Canadiens' organization to accomplish the feat in that time frame. The last to do it was Jean Perron in 1986, and only Al McNeil in 1971 won it all as a rookie coach who came in part way through the season -- exactly what Bylsma hopes to pull off.
Bylsma played wing for Red Wings' coach Mike Babcock when the two were together in Anaheim during the Ducks' run to the 2003 Stanley Cup finals. As unique as that storyline is, the real story behind the Pens' bench is the role of Tom Fitzgerald. His official organizational title is director of player development, yet he was part of the playoff staff a year ago under Michel Therrien. When GM Ray Shero suggested to Bylsma in February that Fitzgerald be part of the team's reshuffled staff, Bylsma was all for it.
According to Shero, "Dan and Fitz had developed a strong relationship at Wilkes-Barre. I think Dan had him on the bench on his own a few times, so this was a natural step for them both."
No doubt, Fitzgerald brings a valuable measure of experience, having been through this particular war last year.
Whereas there was no history between these two teams prior to last season's final -- they did not meet even once during the regular season -- this year the Penguins and Red Wings met twice, with each winning on the other's ice. A year ago, the unknown setting of their first trip to the final and the questions of measuring up to the vaunted Red Wings plagued the Penguins. They stood around and stared for two games before registering even a goal and yet still forced a six-game series. The familiarity factor with all aspects of the final and their opponent should help them from the outset this time around.
The Red Wings have shown organizational depth throughout this postseason, dipping into their AHL pool of resources and relying on defenseman Jonathan Ericsson and winger Darren Helm to fill regular roles. Injuries to prominent players, including centers Pavel Datsyuk and Kris Draper, and defenseman/captain Nick Lidstrom, meant the Wings went further down the depth chart, playing the likes of Justin Abdelkader and Ville Leino as well.
While the Wings have been getting the job done in the playoffs with their own farmhands, the Penguins arrive at the final with a collection of outsiders who came in to augment an impressive young core group. According to Shero, "We needed to add back some grit that we lost through free agency. It began with the trade for Chris Kunitz and his feistiness. Then the Bill Guerin situation came together and finally, we were able to pick up Craig Adams off waivers. From there, it has come together. "
Yes, it has.
Under Bylsma, the Penguins have reestablished their ability to pressure and pursue when they don't have the puck. With it, they are as deep down the middle as any team, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
Bylsma has taken to dressing seven defensemen during the postseason, giving him some flexibility and injury protection -- see: Sergei Gonchar's earlier ailments -- on the backend. More pertinent, with one less forward dressed, Bylsma gets his centermen extra minutes based on adjustments and situations, setting up mismatch advantages as Malkin or Crosby take a turn with the third or fourth lines.
The health of Lidstrom and Datsyuk obviously impacts the view of specific matchups. Whereas the Penguins have an edge down the middle even with a healthy Datsyuk and Draper, the Wings have an advantage on the blueline even if Lidstrom isn't completely healthy. With him in and paired with Brian Rafalski, look for Detroit to defend Crosby's line with the tandem of Brad Stuart -- who is having another phenomenally effective playoff run, as was the case last year -- and Niklas Kronwall dealing with Malkin and mates.
While much of what goes on throughout the series will be fluid and changeable based on results, the scrutiny of goaltenders Chris Osgood and Marc-Andre Fleury will remain constant. Osgood has performed brilliantly in that he has consistently stayed focused and made the clutch saves at necessary moments. Fleury has had big saves define his play as well, but he hasn't consistently been in top form. The considerable skill of their opponent's attack will challenge each netminder.
If the Wings are to win, Osgood has to be the difference-maker on the penalty kill. The Wings have struggled all season and on into the playoffs with their penalty kill. They've given up 15 goals in only 57 man-down situations this spring.
If Osgood is at his best, the Penguins will come up short. However, the counterbalance here is Fleury's ability to keep the Red Wings off the scoresheet as long as possible, and allow his team to play with the lead.
The Wings have been perfect as pacesetters -- yet to lose when leading after the first or second periods. Conversely, they have yet to win when behind after either of those frames. If Fleury can force them to chase the game by keeping them scoreless and not yielding early tallies, the Penguins will hoist the silver chalice.
Unexpected, unheralded and unpredictable
Finally, if you're looking for a couple of players out of the limelight who will thrust themselves into the glare with a special contribution, consider Valtteri Filppula of the Red Wings and Chris Kunitz of the Penguins. Both play significant minutes and during key situations. They've had good moments already during this playoff run, but with a single goal each, they are poised to really break out and make a difference. If either finds the net regularly with the Stanley Cup at stake, they will usurp the accolades reserved for the stars.
This should be fun. Enjoy.
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