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THE GLASS CEILING WAS SHATTERED into a million shards. At 10:50 p.m. on June 4, when Nicklas Lidstrom took the Stanley Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and pressed the world's most elegant and imposing 35-pound weight high above his head, the Detroit captain dragged the NHL into new territory.
The Red Wings' fourth Stanley Cup in the past 11 seasons, and 11th in franchise history, validated so many things: Detroit's claim as America's Team, hockey division (no other U.S.-based franchise has won more than five Cups); the wisdom of playing puck possession over chip-and-chase hockey; old-time verities such as scouting, drafting, player development and a management that does not merely have a clue but can solve the whole puzzle. But most of all, Lidstrom's vise-grip on the Cup marked the end of the hoary notion that a European could not captain a Stanley Cup champion: the Old Myth and the C.
The thinking is so archaic, it can be traced all the way back to 2007. When the Anaheim Ducks won the Cup last spring, eliminating Detroit in the Western Conference finals, they had two European skaters, venerable right wing Teemu Selanne and checking center Samuel Pahlsson. Ducks G.M. Brian Burke delighted in saying that Pahlsson, a jagged-edged Swede, was so tough he seemed to hail from Red Deer, Alberta. Burke's inference was transparent: a standard-issue European was not gritty enough to make an important contribution to a serious playoff team, at least not his serious playoff team. This was Euros, trashed—albeit indirectly. In a league in which roughly 25% of the players are European, the stereotyping might have been viewed by some teams as a canard, but not by the victorious Ducks. Early in the second round of the playoffs Holland asked a guest in his office, "Why do people still think we're a soft team?" Thirty seconds into a rambling reply, Holland interjected, "Because of passports, right?"
At the time the Red Wings were early in the process of barging through the playoffs with 11 Europeans, including six on their top two lines and two exceptional Euro defensemen. Lidstrom, the 38-year-old cyborg blueliner, is a finalist for a sixth Norris Trophy, while Niklas Kronwall throws seismic bodychecks that might be as frequent as Halley's Comet on the international-sized rinks but play a prominent role in North America. Conn Smythe Trophy winner Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, the No. 1 line wizards, were bonded by Motor City karma, but Lidstrom was the Red Wings rock, succeeding Steve Yzerman as captain in '06 and helping guide Detroit through the transition from free-spending powerhouse to salary-cap masters. Said Lidstrom, "[Our success] means we really adjusted to a new system. People thought we were going to drop off after the [2004-05] lockout." The Red Wings used to be the New York Yankees of hockey. They have become the New England Patriots on skates, minus the paranoia.
In a moment that will live forever on YouTube if not in Stanley Cup lore, Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-André Fleury charged onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena for his first game in the finals...and fell on his face. Literally. This is known in the writing game as foreshadowing, but the Red Wings don't believe in foreshadowing as much as they do in forechecking, puck possession, poise, electric skill and solid goaltending. Omens? They don't need no stinkin' omens, although three hours later, after Detroit had tied a bow around a 4-0 victory in Game 1, Fleury's pratfall would have a neat resonance.
The face-plant was hardly the only oddity during a night in which beleaguered Hockeytown shook off the rust and partied like it was 1998. The unheralded Mikael Samuelsson scored two unassisted goals, only one fewer than the number of octopuses that splatted on the ice during the final notes of the national anthem. Go figure.
There isn't a lengthy scouting report on Samuelsson, one of seven Swedes on the Red Wings. He is so quiet, he could have been raised by deer. But the stunned Penguins can attest to his determination. On the goal that broke a scoreless tie late in the second period, the 6' 2", 210-pound rightwinger intercepted a pass at the red line near the benches, lugged the puck on his backhand around defenseman Rob Scuderi and beat Fleury with a wraparound. Samuelsson did even more yeoman work on his next goal to open the third, bouncing Brobdingnagian defenseman Hal Gill against the end boards as if he were a rag doll, which forced Fleury to play the puck to Evgeni Malkin. Samuelsson then nudged the 6' 3" Malkin off the puck, corralled it and beat Fleury from the slot to give Detroit a 2-0 advantage.
Pittsburgh had a final chance to carve into the Red Wings' lead with a late third-period power play, but checking center Kris Draper cleaned Jordan Staal on the face-off, drawing the puck back to defenseman Brad Stuart. Rightwinger Dan Cleary broke immediately on the draw, Stuart fired the puck 175 feet off the end boards and Cleary retrieved it after winning a race with Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. Cleary then slid a crushing backhander short side past Fleury. Game over.
Goalie Chris Osgood, cocooned as usual by Detroit's ability to play keepaway with the puck, made 19 saves for his second shutout of this playoffs and 12th of his postseason career.