Saturday, May 24, 2008

Stanley Cup Finals preview

By Rick Morris

After three consecutive Sun Belt vs. Canada matchups that did nothing to engage the interest of American sports fans with at least a casual interest in hockey, this year's Stanley Cup Finals deliver the NHL's dream matchup: the new face of the NHL, Sidney Crosby, and his team with a legacy of Cup championships from the early 1990s against the franchise deemed "Team of the 1990s" by The Hockey News, the ultimate love-them-or-hate-them team in the sport. If this Pittsburgh vs. Detroit clash fails to engage the public's interest, the league is going to have to take a long look in the mirror to find out what can be done to resuscitate interest in the U.S. -- because this showdown is as good as it gets. Putting the first two games of the Finals on an invisible channel nobody gets certainly doesn't help matters.

Before any analysis commences here, check out this great piece from frequent Lounge guest and columnist John Kreiser and this column from Lounge friend Russ Cohen of Hockeyology.

These are clearly the two best teams in the NHL right now and it's not very often in any sport that the absolute best duo squares off at the end. Take last year for example: it was by no means certain going into the Finals that Anaheim and Ottawa were the two best teams because Detroit arguably was at least on a par with the Sens. Actually, by the time the Finals were over and Ottawa got squashed, it was apparent to most that the Ducks had actually beaten the second-best team of '06-'07 in the Western Conference Finals. But this year Detroit set a team record with nine consecutive playoff wins en route to a 12-4 playoff record and Pittsburgh bested them with an almost unheard-of 12-2 mark. These two are the best, folks, plain and simple. Given the magnitude of what Dallas accomplished in knocking off two of what were perceived as the West's "Big Three" (Anaheim and San Jose) prior to facing the Wings, the Stars would definitely displace the Wings as the clear-cut best team in the West had they won -- but, notwithstanding a heroic-but-doomed comeback once down 0-3, they did not.

Despite the fact that the Finals feature the league's two best teams of 2008, the goaltending picture in this series is unlikely to say the least. Marc-Andre Fleury was a super-high upside prospect coming into the league, but took his time developing over these past few years. Even now, he's been at an elite level for such a short time, essentially the latter part of this season, that it's hard to ascertain whether he's at the point of realizing his potential. Detroit's Chris Osgood is somebody who this columnist previously proclaimed a hugely underrated and underappreciated backstopper and he has vindicated that proclamation, even if it's been aided by some of the greatest help a goalie could ever receive from his blue line. The guess here is that anyone waiting for either of these goalies to wilt in this series will be disappointed -- and Dom Hasek is about as likely to suit up in this series as Gordie Howe is.

The Wings have a huge edge on the blue line, with "Norris" Nick Lidstrom anchoring what is arguably the greatest defense core of the Hockeytown era -- and that covers tremendous ground. For the Pens, Sergei Gonchar has proven this year that he is much more than a forward stationed on the blue line and the commitment to defense has been impressive for Pittsburgh in this postseason. But realistically, this position presents the biggest gap in talent between the teams.

As great as Detroit is offensively, this squad doesn't even begin to approach the firepower of the legendary '02 team (the apex of the team's pre-cap success) and is not on a par with Pittsburgh's "O." The Crosby-Malkin-Hossa power play combo rates right up there with any in the history of the league and it's up to the Wings to stay out of the "sin bin" because even their amazing penalty kill unit would be stretched to the limits by the Penguins' capabilities.

One of the key questions in this series is whether the Wings will have the services of newly-minted dominator Johan Franzen, who against all odds emerged as an unstoppable goal-scorer down the stretch and in the playoffs. "The Mule" continues to be plagued by post-concussion symptoms but is hopeful of playing later in the series. The team will not risk his health under any circumstances. The guess here is that he'll be in for the latter part of the series and if so, he'll make a tremendous difference. Detroit is already thinner than Pittsburgh offensively and they struggled a bit offensively at times in the Western Conference Finals. As strange as it would have sounded mere months ago, Franzen is of huge importance to the Winged Wheel inasmuch as G.M. Ken Holland rolled the dice and elected not to try to pick up another top-two line forward at the trade deadline.

Two interesting notes that won't get much media play: Cleveland sits almost right in between the two cities and is a sort of "demilitarized zone" for two decent-sized fanbases -- and in a league powered by expansion into brand-new arenas, these Finals feature two of the league's dinosaur facilities.

Now, the prediction: an anticipated return of Franzen late in the series will, with the help of the league's best blue line (sorry, Anaheim) that features among other things bone-rattler Nik Kronwall, help Detroit to win its fourth Stanley Cup since 1997. Red Wings in 6.

For the record, first-round predictions were 6-2, second-round prognostications were 1-3 and third-round picks were 2-0.

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