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Ice Chips: And Then There Were Two…

May 23, 2008 | By Steven Ovadia | comment on this post

A lot of times, and across sports, fans are often left with the feeling that a league wants certain teams in the playoffs because of the size of the market, not the quality of the team. There have always been vague rumblings about the NHL doing what it can to keep the New York Rangers competitive, since they represent a huge market. And you always hear how the league (and television networks) felt burned by the 2004 Tampa-Calgary Finals and 2006’s small-market Carolina-Edmonton matchup.

But now, everyone is talking about how happy the league is with Detroit-Pittsburgh, two superstar teams from decent-size markets. The thing is, this is one of those times where what’s good for the NHL is also good for the fans, because this is a pretty amazing matchup of speed and talent and yes, even defense. A Red Wings-Penguins series is good for the NHL from a marketing perspective, but it’ll also be good from a product perspective.

This series is two exciting teams showing the world why people love hockey so much. Not sure what to expect? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered:

Goaltending

Detroit’s Chris Osgood had a strong season sharing number one duties with Dominik Hasek. Hasek got the nod to start the playoffs, but he couldn’t finish. His erratic play got him pulled right in the middle of the first round against Nashville. Osgood grabbed the starting job and never let go, putting up a 1.60 goals against and .931 save percentage in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury missed almost half of the season with a high-ankle sprain and while he was gone, backup Ty Conklin, last seen imploding in Edmonton, did an excellent job as the number one goalie. But Fleury won the job back cleanly, and has been solid, if a bit scrambly, in the playoffs. He’s got a 1.70 goals against and .938 save percentage. The only thing he doesn’t have is Osgood’s Cup-winning experience, and that’s got to count for something.

Defense

Detroit features one of the NHL’s best defenseman in Nicklas Lidstrom. Enough said. Wait. You need more? How about the underrated Brian Rafalski, who is also an excellent puck mover, and who is the recipient of many nice opportunities when forwards try to charge the offense-minded Lidstrom. And don’t forget about Niklas Kronvall, who has the most points by a defenseman in the playoffs, and who has more assists than anyone on the Penguins but Sidney Crosby.

That’s not to say Pittsburgh’s Sergei Gonchar and his cannon of a shot isn’t something to worry about. Or that the less offensively minded Brooks Orpik, Hal Gill, Ryan Whitney and Robert Scuderi aren’t going to be factors in the Finals. Don’t think that for a minute, as this group can be tough to play against. Pittsburgh wins on defensive defensemen, but do the Pens have the speed to contain the Wings? I don’t think they do.

Offense

I saved offense for last because there’s just so much of it between the two teams. Obviously, a lot of the Wing offense starts with their defensemen. For Pittsburgh, its forwards start most, if not all, of the transitions. For Detroit, you have a top line of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Tomas Holmstrom. Together, they’ve put up 23 goals and 27 assists in 16 games.

Compare that to Pittsburgh’s top line of Pascal Dupuis, Crosby, and Marian Hossa, who have a combined 15 goals and 31 assists in 14 games. But before you give Pittsburgh the win, consider the Penguins’ Plan B line, featuring Evgeni Malkin, Petr Sykora, and Ryan Malone, who combine to account for another 20 goals and 22 assists.

Of course, Detroit’s Johan Franzen can practically make that up himself with his 12 goals and three assists. Franzen missed just about all of the Dallas series with concussion symptoms, but it looks like he’ll be ready to go for Saturday and if he’s in anything close to the shape he was in before his injury, Pittsburgh is going to want to consider double-teaming him. But when you talk offense, you have to mention Detroit’s always-involved blue line. And ultimately, that’s going to be the deciding factor in this series.

Does Pittsburgh have the stamina and smarts to not only contain Detroit, but to also launch its own offense? It’s Detroit’s Cup to lose. The Wings will take it in six games.

The Hockey Blog

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