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Containing Crosby
June 08, 2009
The Red Wings assigned him a personal escort on the ice and draped him with top defenders. Stopping Sid the Kid was the strategy for bringing the silver chalice back to Detroit
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June 08, 2009

Containing Crosby

The Red Wings assigned him a personal escort on the ice and draped him with top defenders. Stopping Sid the Kid was the strategy for bringing the silver chalice back to Detroit

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Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg picked up Sidney Crosby early on Sunday, the morning of Game 2, at the Penguins' hotel in Detroit. The two stopped at a Starbucks, where Zetterberg paid, poured the milk into Crosby's coffee and stirred.

Then they drove to a nearby church. Crosby settled into a pew, and Zetterberg slid in next to him. Crosby picked up a hymnal; Zetterberg turned the pages.

Crosby recited the Lord's Prayer. Zetterberg said, "Amen."

Well, that's not actually what happened, but given the way the Stanley Cup finals were unfolding, would anyone have been surprised?

With the continued absence of Pavel Datsyuk, nursing an injured foot, Detroit was left with just one sublime two-way center—Zetterberg—who could play head-to-head against either Crosby, Pittsburgh's captain, or Evgeni Malkin, the NHL's leading scorer and an MVP finalist. They are Sid and Geno to teammates, Hemlock and Arsenic to opponents. With the last line change that came with his home ice advantage in the first two games, Detroit coach Mike Babcock had to decide which of the two Penguins most deserved the privilege of a full-time escort from Zetterberg and the attention of the No. 1 defense pair of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski.

Crosby won—or in this case, lost.

This was less about Zetterberg checking Crosby than stalking him. The fluid Red Wing, strong on his skates, was so near he could have guessed Crosby's toothpaste brand. "That's what he tried to do the last couple of years that I've played against him," Crosby says. "He's always been close. He's a good skater. It always presents a challenge." Of Crosby's 49 shifts through two games, even-strength and power-play, Zetterberg was on the ice for all or part of 46 of them. They shared nearly 34 minutes of Crosby's 42 minutes on ice. Crosby took 35 face-offs; Zetterberg was across the dot in 27 of them. Crosby wallpapered a head-down Zetterberg at center ice in the first period of Game 1 and later delivered a cross-check to the nape of Zetterberg's neck. "I think he went head-hunting right off the hop," Babcock said, not disapprovingly. "[Crosby's] ability to respond was good. I think that's a game within the game. If you're a hockey purist, and you like superstars who bring it, that's a nice matchup."

Zetterberg is a laconic man, even by Swedish standards. He embraces whatever task he is assigned unbothered that his offense—just one assist in two games—might suffer. Along with hounding Crosby, Zetterberg was a second goalie in Games 1 and 2 last weekend, covering a puck that had landed on the prostrate Osgood's back in the opener and hurling himself into a dog pile in the crease to cover another puck and deny Crosby on the following night. Like Crosby, Zetterberg said he enjoys the challenge of the matchup. Unlike the loquacious Crosby, he does it with eyes wide-open and lips zipped.

The most meticulous planning is no match for puck luck, as was illustrated in a pair of quirky 3--1 Red Wings wins. From odd bounces off the sprightly Joe Louis Arena boards that resulted in a pair of Red Wings goals in Game 1 to the three goalposts the Penguins hit in Game 2 to rookie winger Justin Abdelkader getting his first two NHL goals, Detroit seemed capable of capitalizing on almost every break. The Penguins, on the other hand, returned home fortunate to have Malkin in the lineup. He picked a fight with Zetterberg 19 seconds from the final whistle of that second game and earned a two-minute instigator penalty, a five-minute fighting major and a game misconduct, which normally carries an automatic suspension. Not surprisingly the NHL rescinded the suspension. Maneuvering in the rule's gray area, NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell determined that Malkin was neither trying to "send a message" nor seeking revenge for a previous incident and so wouldn't be banned. (Not to mention, the decision preserved a star attraction, as well as Pittsburgh's hope of clambering back into the series.) Any Penguins resurrection was going to depend upon Crosby and also upon Malkin, who, largely unencumbered by the ministrations of Zetterberg and Lidstrom, was a persistent threat throughout the first two games, though he had only a goal and an assist. Malkin also LeBroned the media, making himself unavailable for comment after the Zetterberg skirmish.

On his desk in Pittsburgh, Penguins general manager Ray Shero has a color-coded chart of all the shots that have gotten past Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood in the playoffs. This is almost high-tech for a game that has an arm's-length relationship with metrics—the convergence of a slippery playing surface, skate blades 1/10 of an inch wide and a hunk of bouncing vulcanized rubber make hockey a game of oops—but even the Osgood breakdown is incomplete because it does not account for screened shots. ("In baseball," Shero says, "it's not like someone dashes in front of home plate when the pitcher throws the ball.") In any event Shero can color Osgood, with his .930 postseason save percentage and 1.95 goals-against average, nearly invincible.

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