A season that started off so oddly, with the Ducks and Kings playing in London for some reason, is ending so beautifully, with the two best teams battling for the Cup and all of the games scheduled for North America.
This is such an incredible matchup, such a dream pairing, that the series has too many angles to break down. The top five playoff scorers, maybe the best defensemen of all time, the two best goalies in the playoffs to this point, two teams that want to beat you with skating and scoring instead of clutching and grabbing...the ingredients to analyze just go on and on.
While David Stern is waking up at 3am trembling in fear as he considers a Detroit/San Antonio finals, Detroit/Pittsburgh could get hockey back into the mainstream. Ratings are up throughout the playoffs, national writers are mentioning hockey again, even if in passing, and it's entirely possible that Game 1 is a 5-4 barnburner that gets people talking all weekend. Coming off a series in which Penguins fans actually wondered if they would mind the Flyer team plane crashing, this series seems laden with mutal respect so far. The skill and youth of Pittsburgh is the talk of the town, while Detroit has been so good for so long, with such good guys like Lidstrom that it's alsmot impossible to genuinely dislike them. It's like Tiger against Phil at Augusta, except one team is not a chubby, fake media manipulator like Mickelson.
The prevailing wisdom thus far seems to be the offenses are basically equal and Detroit's superior defense will give it the edge. A Dallas Morning News writer picked the Wings in six because he figures the Penguins haven't seen defense like they play in the Campbell Conference. Which is fine, everybody is entitled to an opinion or a theory. But even a modicum of research shows that the Penguins went 8-1-1 against the Campbells this season, with a goal differential of 30-19. That record includes wins over Dallas, Anaheim and Minnesota, three teams supposedly renowned for their defense. The Pens scored 13 goals in those three wins alone. And that's without Ziggy Palffy!
There's no question Detroit has the better defense by name. If you don't know much about hockey, I'll keep it simple for you. Lidstrom, Rafalski and Kronwall are all good. And if the Penguins only had one scoring line, that would be fine. Dandy, even. But assuming Lidstrom and Kronwall draw the Crosby, Hossa, Dupuis trio, that leaves Gene and His Two Beans against Rafalski and Lilja. And that's a clear advantage for the Penguins. It's not like Rafalski shut down Malkin last year for Jersey.
Gonchar and Orpik will definitely have their gloves full with Datsyuk and Zetterberg. But if they can even slow that line down a little bit, the Red Wings just don't have a ton of offensive depth. Yes, Kris Draper can occasionally score off of his face, but that's not reliable output. And before you tell me for the 15th time that Johan Franzen has 12 goals in the playoffs, I'll tell you that he had at least 6 of those against an absolutely putrid Colorado team. Those goals shouldn't even count toward his total. Detroit's offense is like Detroit's industry. Two titans with absolutely no backup plan. You may have noticed that went Franzen went down with an extra-large headache, the Wings struggled to score goals like Ford is struggling to sell Excursions.
This series will come down to individual matchups, and they will be fascinating. Lidstrom vs. Crosby. Gill vs. Holmstrom on the power play. Therrien vs. Babcock with the last change deciding to put skill on skill or trying to check the top lines. It's nearly impossible to predict what's going to happen in this series, but Game 1 will be a strong bellwether. Can Detroit play puck possession, or did the weak Nashville, Colorado and Dallas offenses make Detroit look better than it was? Osgood is seeing under 25 shots most night, but Pittsburgh has been firing around 35 a game, so which trend will win out?
When Detroit finally got around to finishing off Dallas, I was fully confident that the Penguins would beat them. Then I felt like the Penguins could beat them. Then I felt like Detroit would roll. Then I felt like Detroit's performance is a little inflated since their playoff opponents sucked so heartily. Now? I feel full and loogy. But that's mostly because I had a tall stack of pancakes this morning.
I'm taking the Penguins in six. I think Pittsburgh will win all three home games and steal one in Detroit. In fact, if Pittsburgh can come out of Memorial Day weekend with a 1-1 split, I'll be so excited that I'll probably do something mildly foolish just to burn off the energy. And when the Penguins win, the biggest moment of the series will be Crosby passing off the Cup. Who will he give it to? A long time veteran like Gonchar? If he doesn't give it to Malkin, will everybody in Pittsburgh assume there's a rivalry and that Malkin will be run out of town? And will Ryan Malone be able to figure out how to sit a chick in the Cup and bone her?
We're getting ahead of ourselves here!