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Control Freaks
MICHAEL FARBER
June 02, 2008
Possession is nine-tenths of the battle between the Red Wings and Penguins. Three years after the NHL rejiggered its rules for more offense, the league has its ideal championship matchup
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June 02, 2008

Control Freaks

Possession is nine-tenths of the battle between the Red Wings and Penguins. Three years after the NHL rejiggered its rules for more offense, the league has its ideal championship matchup

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RED WINGS forward Mikael Samuelsson intercepted a pass near center ice in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, blew past some Pittsburgh Penguins going off on a line change and hurtled through the neutral zone with the puck on his backhand. As a junior partner on Team Puck Possession, the 31-year-old Swede knew he would be expected to make a play. His choices were limited as he barrelled down the left wing. Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi was in front of him. There was no option to Samuelsson's right because throwing the puck into the middle of the ice and hoping to find a teammate's stick is not the prescribed method in Detroit, where the puck, like a cherished family heirloom is not given away lightly. Samuelsson thought of cutting to the middle, saw the space close and then went into overdrive to the outside, circling the net and scoring the first goal of the game on a wraparound before goalie Marc-Andr� Fleury could cover his far post.

"We're a different team than what they've played," Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood said after Detroit had won the opener of the most anticipated finals in more than a decade 4--0. "The Rangers would have been closest to [us]. Ottawa dumps [the puck] quite a bit. Philly definitely does. We possess the puck the majority of the time, if we can.... That's what we believe in, and I just think they hadn't seen it before. We do it better than any other team in the league."

Even better than the Penguins. Although this finals hardly promises to be a last-goal-wins affair, it is a showcase of two glittering offensive teams and, more pointedly, the puck-possession game. That's why, 491 miles from downtown Detroit, Rangers winger Brendan Shanahan plopped himself in front of a TV in his New York City apartment to watch Game 1. Once his team is eliminated from the playoffs—the Penguins had flattened the Rangers in five games in a second-round series—Shanahan typically doesn't tune in; he finds it too painful. But a Stanley Cup being contested between two industrial cities that have hockey cultures and have rosters dripping with talent (call it a Diamonds and Rust finals) was a siren call. "Like most people," Shanahan said, "I was just too curious."

The Red Wings and the Penguins are Shanahan's teams, if only in a metaphysical sense. His proprietorship dates to the 2004--05 lockout when Shanahan, then with Detroit, convened the so-called Shanahan Summit, a meeting of some players, coaches, TV executives and other hockey people that addressed the state of the on-ice product. The summit would lead to the unshackling of the NHL, the crackdown on the restraining fouls that had constipated the game by tilting it away from skill players and giving an advantage to defensive stubbornness.

The three-year journey from gabfest to a finals between the NHL's most conspicuously talented teams was a torturous one, but the dots can be connected between the tweaks to the game and a finals matching teams fully committed to making plays.

THE PENGUINS acquired the skill to play their puck-possession style the modern way: through the rewards of incompetence. Holding the No. 1 or 2 pick in three straight drafts beginning in 2004, they plucked (in order) Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal, now their top three centers. This is a dynasty starter kit, a trio capable of hanging on to the puck. The 6'3", 192-pound Malkin, with a boardinghouse reach and a wondrous ability to shield the puck, can draw defenders to him and hold them off until he finds linemate Petr Sykora, stick cocked, open for a one-timer.

The Red Wings have only one forward, center Dan Cleary, who was drafted in the first round, but for two decades they've been importing European players who follow the organization's central premise: Having the puck most of the time gives you a better chance to score than the other guys. (As Samuelsson noted on the eve of the finals, "Why would anyone want to give up the puck in the first place? You want to create stuff with the puck.") Former Detroit general manager Jim Devellano, now a senior vice president, was intrigued by the skills of the high-end European players in the mid- and late 1980s. In the middle rounds of the draft he preferred taking a chance on gifted Russians and Czechs such as Sergei Fedorov and Petr Klima in anticipation of the fall of the Iron Curtain. When Scotty Bowman arrived as the coach in 1993--94, he engineered trades for defenseman Slava Fetisov and center Igor Larionov.

"One day [in 1995] Scotty puts these five Russians together [as a unit], and they've got the puck the whole winter," says G.M. Ken Holland, once Devellano's chief scout. "Pretty soon our checkers—guys like [Kirk] Maltby, [Kris] Draper, [Darren] McCarty—realize, You know what, it's easier to have the puck and have them chase you. So our checking line is playing puck possession, and we slowly evolve into a European puck-possession-type team. The reason it works today is we've done it for 10 years. We draft, trade and look for free agents that fit that style." There are no exceptions, even for plow horses such as 39-year-old Dallas Drake, who signed with Detroit before this season. "If your puck skills aren't good," he said, "you'll just get embarrassed every day in practice."

The current Red Wings, who have four Swedes, a Russian and a Finn among their usual top six forwards, aren't quite the dervishes that the Russian Five were—Larionov & Co. were a confetti-in-the-water-bucket trick shy of being the Globetrotters—but they still wheel in the neutral zone before resuming attacks.

Says Pittsburgh's Pascal Dupuis, who plays on Crosby's left flank, "The difference in styles is that we'll go right up ice [because our goal] is to play as deep in their end as possible. [The Wings] will regroup. They'll [move the puck from defenseman to defenseman] before going up." After outshooting the Penguins 36--19 in Game 1, the Red Wings had taken more shots than the opposition in 15 of 17 playoff games. Because it controls the puck so often, Detroit effectively Bubble-Wraps Osgood, who has faced 21 shots or fewer nine times in 13 starts.

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