The Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins will face each other for the 2008 Stanley Cup finals starting Saturday night at 8 p.m. My problem is going to be deciding which team to cheer on: I like them both, and there's plenty to like about both teams.
This was not the matchup many people expected. Case in point: The Hockey News, in its playoff preview issue, picked the defending champion Anaheim Ducks as the most likely winners this year at 4-1. (The Ducks, in case you weren't watching, were excused in six games by Dallas--who just lost to Detroit in six games tonight--in the first round back in April.) Their second most-likely pick? The San Jose Sharks at 5-1. (The Sharks were sent packing in the second round, also in six games, again by Dallas.) The Wings were THN's third pick at 6-1. Their highest Eastern Conference pick was the New Jersey Devils at 7-1, but the Devils only managed to win a single game in the first round against the Rangers. Just behind the Devils were the Ottawa Senators at 8-1, but Pittsburgh swept them out in the first round. The Penguins were THN's sixth pick, at 10-1, to go all the way.
The Wings have a bit of an edge, given that they've been to this dance a time or three before. (The Red Wings already appear on Lord Stanley's cup 10 times--in third place behind Les Habitants (24 appearances) of Montréal and the Maple Leafs (11 appearances) of Toronto. Detroit last appeared in the finals (and won the cup) in 2002, whereas Pittsburgh hasn't done either since 1992. They have, on the other hand, had a slightly less bumpy road to the finals (Pittsburgh has played 14 games in the first three rounds of the playoffs, to Detroit's 16.) Both teams are well-stocked with young players and seasoned with veterans. Pittsburgh has two absolutely phenomenal stars having breakout years, in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; Detroit can count on plenty of scoring from all of its lines. The top five point-getters in the playoffs? All on either Pittsburgh or Detroit: Henrik Zetterberg and Sidney Crosby are tied with 21 apiece, followed by Marion Hossa (Pittsburgh), Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit), and Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh), each with 19. Detroit has three of the top five goal-scorers in the playoffs in Johan Franzen (12), Zetterberg (11), and Datsyuk (9). Pittsburgh's only representation in that category is Hossa, who is tied with Datsyuk. Crosby has the most assists of anyone in the playoffs with 17, with Detroit's Niklas Kronwall (12) and Zetterberg (11) in fourth and fifth place.
I'm leaning, with The Hockey News, toward giving Detroit the edge to win it all, based on a combination of youth, skill, and veteran experience. But it will not, in all likelihood, be a quick or easy victory. Pittsburgh has yet to lose a playoff game in its home arena, and Detroit, who looked to be on a roll when they want up 3-0 against Dallas in the Western Conference final, fell asleep at the wheel thereafter and only woke up tonight--after dropping two straight games in which it looked as if the steam had well and truly gone out of their juggernaut. It doesn't help that the Wings' leading scorer, Johan Franzen, has missed the last five games with concussion symptoms after scoring the game-winner in the first contest against Dallas in the finals.
And I definitely like the venerable hockey playoff tradition that, never mind the fact that ten minutes previously they were trying to crush one another into the boards or body-check one another off the puck, when a team has been eliminated from contention, everybody lines up down the middle of the ice and shakes hands with the winning team. Often, players will pause and say a few words of condolence or praise as well. Maybe we could introduce that tradition into our politics as well, eh?