The road to the final was long for both teams, and they are so close to that ultimate reward: Lord Stanley's Cup. They can almost taste it, and the next 4-7 games are the most important they will have played this entire season.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are going into the final as arguably the hottest team that entered the playoffs. After a coaching change, Dan Bylsma turned the Pens into a solid team, not only getting them back into the playoff picture, but securing the 4th spot in the conference, and home ice in the first round. That advantage proved to be very critical, as they took down the state rival Philadelphia Flyers in 6 games. The Pens won the first 2 games at home and took control of the series early. They went into Philly having beaten the Flyers 4-1 in game 1, and 3-2 in game 2 in overtime. Marc-Andre Fleury had stepped up and been a critical component of both wins, outplaying Philly goaltender Martin Biron in both games. Game 3 went to the Flyers at home, and the Pens stole game 4. They headed back home up 3-1 in the series with a chance to close out, but Philadelphia had other plans. They stormed into the Igloo and stole game 5, shutting out the Pens 3-0. Biron did his job to keep his team alive, and it was up to them to return the favor in game 6. They didn't. The Pens came out with the determination to win, and ended up taking the series 4-2 with a 5-3 win in game 6.
The win over the Flyers set up the marquee matchup. Everyone wanted to see the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins battle it out over 7 games. The series didn't disappoint, with game 7 being the only possible exception. The only thing that would have made the series better was if it was the Conference Finals instead of the semi-final. The Caps came out with fire hot goalie Simeon Varlamov and took games 1 and 2 at home in pretty convincing fashion. Alex Ovechkin, who the New York Rangers did a good job of containing most of their series, finally woke up, scoring 4 goals in the first 2 games. Arguably the most exciting game of the playoffs to that point was game 2, where BOTH Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin netted hat-tricks. OV's tally ended up pushing the Caps to a game 2 win and a 2-0 series lead. They now held the lead they had faced as a defecit in the previous round, and unfortunately for them, they couldn't take a strangle hold over the series.
Game 3 shifted to Pittsburgh, and the Crosby-Ovechkin showdown continued. Ovechkin scored yet another goal in the game (8), but the biggest goal was a first for young blue liner Kris Letang. Letang buried a shot at 11:23 of overtime for his first career playoff goal, and gave the Pens their first win of the series, and a critical change in momentum. Game 4 was a quiet one for Ovechkin, who registered one assist, while counterpart Sidney Crosby helped his team to a 5-3 win with 1 goal and 1 assist.
The scenery shifted back to the nation's capital for game 5, and once again, it came down to overtime. This one went Pittsburgh's way yet again, with Evgeni Malkin netting the winner 3:28 into overtime, giving the Pens a 3-2 series lead. Ovechkin added 2 more goals (9, 10) and 1 assist, but fell short of winning the game for his team.
Game 6 was, believe it or not, yet another overtime finish. The Caps were on the brink of being eliminated yet again. They avoided 3 such games against the New York Rangers to move on to the next round, and hoped to pull it off yet again in Pittsburgh. Enter Dave Steckel, who redirected the winner for the Caps 3:22 into overtime. The Caps finally won an overtime game, a situation in which they were only 1-7 against Pittsburgh in the last 8 matchups.
Game 7. Ovechkin vs Crosby. What more could an NHL fan want? Overtime? Not gonna happen in this one. The Penguins came out ready to win, and dominated most of the game. They ended up winning by a final of 6-2, and sealed the series with a somewhat anti-climactic game 7. Crosby 1, Ovechkin 0
The Pens moved on to face the Carolina Hurricanes, a team that stormed through the New Jersey Devils with impressive wins. One came with 0.2 seconds left on the clock in the 3rd period, and game 7 was a meltdown by the Devils, with Carolina coming back from down late with under 5 minutes to play to win the game. The Canes then went on to shock the Bruins and win the series, setting up for a matchup with Sid the Kid and the Penguins. The series was a bit of a letdown, but nobody expected another Pens-Caps series. The Pens swept the Hurricanes very convincingly, with game 1 (3-2) being the only real nail-biter. They put themselves into the Stanely Cup Finals for the 2nd straight year, filling 1/2 of the rematch puzzle.
DETROIT RED WINGS
The Detroit Red Wings are heading into the finals looking for back-to-back Cups, but they have their share of injury problems. Adding to the drama of a rematch is Marian Hossa, who left Pittsburgh for Detroit to win a cup. Now he has a chance to steal the cup away from his former team, or to watch them celebrate what could have been his. Drama all around in this series, and one exciting matchup coming
In the first round, the defending champs got the young Columbus Blue Jackets, led by rookie goalie sensation Steve Mason. Mason was going to be the deciding factor for Columbus, but nobody gave them a chance to keep up with the Wings. Games 1, 2, and 3 were enough to convince people that the Jackets weren't ready to take down a giant like Detroit. Veteran goalie Chris Osgood surrendered only 2 goals across the first 3 games, getting 4 goals of support in each win. Game 4 was easily the best of the series. Columbus finally showed up, but, like most were probably thinking, it was too little too late. They put up 5 goals, surpassing their total for the first 3 games by 4 goals, but fell short. Detroit won 6-5 and took the series in 4 games handily, erasing doubts that they could defend their title.
The following round brough another young group of players in the Anaheim Ducks, who took down the President's Trophy winning San Jose Sharks. The Wings won game 1 3-2, but dropped games 2 and 3 4-3 and 2-1 respectively. Game 4 was theirs for the taking. They won a convincing game 6-3, and went home for game 5. Another convincing win as they beat up on the Ducks 4-1. Game 6 went back to Anaheim with the Wings up 3 games to 2. The Ducks didn't want vacation yet, and sent the series back to the motor city for game 7, winning a tight battle 2-1. Game 7 was the moment the Wings decided that they weren't going to sit down and let the Ducks steal their shot at the Conference Finals. They came out and won a big game in front of their home crowd by a score of 4-3, taking the series in 7
Bring on the Chicago Blackhawks, yet another young team, led by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The Wings, who desperately needed a shorter series, got their wish, winning in 5. They took games 1 and 2, and the series shifted to Chicago. The Hawks finally showed up and won the game 4-3 in overtime, only after blowing a 3 goal lead. Games 4 and 5 didn't end as well as Chicago would have liked, with the Wings winning 6-1, and clinching the series in overtime 2-1 in game 5.
The rematch is finally set. Detroit against Pittsburgh. Champs vs the runner up of the 2007-2008 season. Does Pittsburgh have what it takes to win the series and get revenge? Or will Detroit pull of yet another great playoff run and win the cup? Let's take a look at how the teams matched up this season.
The Penguins and Red Wings played in . On November 11th, the Wings lost a scoring battle 7-6 in overtime at home. The next matchup, on February 8th, they won 3-0 in Pittsburgh, with Ty Conklin shutting out his former team, adding even more to the newly brewing rivarly. So the teams split the 2 games this season, with Detroit winning once on a backup goalie. You read those numbers? The scores? Okay good
Now forget about them completely
Regular season numbers mean absolutely nothing. Look at the Sharks getting knocked out in the first round, at the Rangers taking the Caps 7 games (or Caps taking the Rangers 7, whichever you prefer). Look at how the Blue Jackets' stellar rookie goalie faltered completely. Look at a Norris Trophy candidate in Mike Green who was invisible nearly every single playoff game. Do regular season accomplishments help you in May? Not at all
This series will be, without a doubt, a great battle. Rematches are always exciting, but this one will be special. The Wings are the veteran club that has cups galore in it's history, while the Pens have a group of young star players that are ready to shine and take Lord Stanley home with them. Youngsters Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, if you can call them youngsters, will look to make improvements on what they did last year in order to avoid the same fate. Veteran Chris Osgood will try to show Marc-Andre Fleury how to win back-to-back cups.
Who can forget the drama of Marian Hossa? He left Pittsburgh for Detroit and a shot at the cup. Now he gets a shot at it, and a shot at his former team as well. Need drama? Watch the Stanley Cup Finals. Nothing better in the world than playoff hockey, and this finals matchup is sure to be a great series.
Here comes my prediction. See the word "prediction"? That means it's my opinion. I don't base it all on facts. I go with gut feeling on some things, so complaints about me being wrong on who I say will win or who will stand out will be ignored. Arguments and constructive criticism are always appreciated.
The series, in my eyes, will come down to several key factors:
- Goaltending : Chris Osgood against Marc-Andre Fleury. Who will stand tall? Who will fail to capture glory? Everyone knows that Ozzy has been there before, and he has shown during this playoff run that he still has what it takes to win. Fleury is a young star in the making, and has the potential to be great. He has the same inconsistencies that most young players have, but when he's on, he's almost unbeatable. I give the edge to Detroit in goal, only because Osgood has been through it all several times before, and has proven that he can win. I won't say that Fleury won't outshine Osgood, but he'll have to be pretty good to do so. Edge: Red Wings
- Scoring : Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin against _______ (insert any player there): This one goes hands down to the Penguins. I'm not saying that Detroit can't score goals, but they don't have a single player to compare with Crosby OR Malkin. You could argue either Marian Hossa or Johan Franzen, but nobody on that team can dominate the same way Crosby and Malkin do frequently. I expect the Pens to score more goals overall in the series, with Crosby and Malkin having the bulk of them. Jordan Staal could be a key factor for the Pens in terms of scoring, especially if Detroit can lock down either Malkin or Crosby, or even both on any given night. Edge: Penguins
- Experience : No question here that Detroit wins in experience. They have many cup winners on the roster, and have their share of playoff experience. The Pens did go 6 games in the finals last year, and that should give them plenty of knowledge on how to keep up with a battle-tested team like Detroit. Detroit gets the slight win in this category, but only because they're the defending champs and have plenty of cup winners to show off. The Pens have enough experience to win the cup now, but I have to say it here. Edge: Red Wings
- X-Factor : Each team, in my eyes, has one x-factor that can change the series all by himself. For the Red Wings, the x-factors are Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen. Hossa has a level that he can go to and take over a game for a short period of time. He can bury the puck without breaking a sweat, and if he heats up, the Wings could become deadly. He and Johan Franzen are both keys to Detroit's success in this series. For the Penguins, the x-factor is NOT Sidney Crosby. It is NOT Evgeni Malkin. No, it isn't Marc-Andre Fleury either. I have a feeling that, if an x-factor rears it's head in this series, it will be Jordan Staal. He has shown plenty of promise, and has that typical Staal determination and talent that the NHL is going to see for many years in Jordan, as well as current NHL brothers Eric (Carolina) and Marc (New York Rangers). If the Penguins have one player that can push them over the top, I see it being Jordan Staal