Friday, May 29, 2009

NHL 2009 Stanley Cup Finals preview

By Rick Morris

[NOTE: Purely as good clean fun, we decided to embed some pictures of "typical Pittsburgh fans" for this feature.]
There are several juicy hooks for the Stanley Cup Finals: "The Chosen One" Sid Crosby's Penguins against THE league's love'em-or-hate'em team, Marian Hossa going up against the team that he so memorably left to chase a championship in Detroit and the rematch angle.
Let's start with that one first.
Believe it or not, this series marks the first time in the modern history of the "Big Four" sports that there has been more than ten years between championship rematches in ANY sport. The last time there was a rematch in any major sport was the 1998 NBA Finals when the Bulls beat the Jazz for the second straight year.
As a matter of fact, here's how rematches have gone in all leagues in the last 50 years:
^ The last Stanley Cup rematch was the one that Pittsburgh fans want to cite as precedent: the 1984 Oilers rising up and ending the Islander dynasty after the previous year's defeat. Other rematches came in 1977/78 (Montreal over Boston both times), 1968/69 (Montreal over St. Louis both times), 1963/64 (Toronto over Detroit both times) and 1959/60 (Montreal over Toronto both times).
^ There have been several hoops rematches over the years, although again none since 1998. Before that, LA and Detroit split in 1988-89, Boston and LA split in 1984/85, LA and Philadelphia split in 1982/83, Washington and Seattle split in 1978/79, LA and New York split in 1972/73, Boston beat LA both times in 1968/69, Boston beat LA both times in 1965/66, Boston beat LA both times in 1962/63 and Boston beat St. Louis both times in 1960/61.
^ There has only been one rematch in the Super Bowl era, Dallas over Buffalo both times in 1992/93. Prior to that, in the NFL, Green Bay beat Dallas both times in 1966/67, Green Bay beat the New York Giants in 1961/62 and Baltimore beat the New York Giants in 1958/59. In the AFL, Buffalo beat San Diego both times in 1965/66.
^ Baseball stands alone with only one rematch in the last quarter-century, the Yankees over the Dodgers both times in 1977/78.
So while we haven't seen many rematches in major sports recently, this period of time with so few of them is the historical exception and not the rule.
Now, the Hossa angle ... very interesting. As a notorious Red Wing fan and sadist regarding all things Pittsburgh, I said on our GOON SQUAD program that I really wanted to see the Wings close out the series in Pittsburgh again with Hossa hoisting the Conn Smythe trophy. If that happens, the blue-collar denizens of Western Pennsylvania will end up reenacting the Attica riots on national television. Seeing one of the game's top stars win a championship at the expense of the team he left -- because he expressly felt like he was going to a better team -- is surely one of the more dramatic possibilities in the recent annals of sport.
And certainly, from a marketing standpoint, seeing Gary Bettman's annointed torch-carrier for the league, Sid Crosby, taking on America's Team for the second straight year, is a very, very compelling scenario. The Detroit Red Wings have the strongest national following of any franchise, and they are thus widely hated as well. With four Stanley Cups since 1997 and another appearance in the Finals the previous year, the Wings have set the recent standard of success in the NHL. Pittsburgh won two Stanley Cups in 1991/92, only to be nudged aside by Detroit as The Hockey News Team of the Decade. So this rivalry is actually nothing new, even if it has not been directly manifested on the ice that often.
In terms of position-by-position, the Wings have the most obvious superiority on the blue line even if they collectively underachieved during the regular season. Nick Lidstrom is the game's best defenseman since Bobby Orr and his pairing with another great in Brian Rafalski is absolutely sublime. Brad Stuart and the very physical Nick Kronwall are an excellent second unit with up-and-comer Jonathan Ericsson making an impact in these playoffs as well -- even if he is coming off an emergency appendectomy. Aside from the outstanding Sergei Gonchar, whose injury really contributed to Pittsburgh's rough regular season, the Pens make up their blue line combos with a bunch of Carolina-esque overachievers.
Of course, Pittsburgh wins the battle of forwards purely in terms of the explosiveness of the top skaters. Crosby actually finished behind teammate Evgeni Malkin in scoring this year, a tribute to the capabilities of both. Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin both add nicely to the top lines and as our good friend Russ Cohen of Sportsology has pointed out, the third line combination has developed nicely this year. The Wings have their offense more evenly distributed top-to-bottom, however, and the Eurotwins of Pavel Datsyuk and and Henrik Zetterberg are the best two-way superstars in the league (remember how Hank Z shut down the Pens last year in addition to scoring explosively en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy). There has not been a better clutch playoff scorer than Johan Franzen over the past two years and Dan Cleary was hot in the conference finals as well. The forwards probably equate to about a draw.
The same can probably be said of the goalies, as controversial a sentiment as that might be. Marc-Andre Fleury has the superstar pedigree and is starting to live up to it -- and pretty much singlehandedly stole Game Five of the Finals a year ago -- but Chris Osgood has won two Stanley Cups as a starter. We pronounced him the biggest "X factor" of the playoffs at the outset and he really came alive after a horrible regular season. He has leveraged his recent misfortune for motivation and is playing as well as anyone. That he can be judged as able to stand up to Fleury is a tremendous plus for the Wings.
In the end, my prediction for the Finals matches my preseason pick: Wings in six and Chris Osgood for Conn Smythe Trophy. My playoff record thus far is a tasty 11-3, so if anyone is tempted to dismiss the pick as homerism, think again. To be the man, you've got to beat the man, so bring it on, Pittsburgh!

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