05/23/2008 9:42 AM
By Chad Huebner
The Stanley Cup Final is slightly earlier this year, yet only by a little bit. I had heard Hizzoner Gary Bettman (aka The Man Who Continues to Screw Around with a Good Thing) say that there were plans in place if the Conference Finals ended earlier than expected. Well, one only went five games, the other six, and yet we still have to wait five days for the Cup Final to begin, so where was the bloody plan?
Call me impatient, but I want this year’s Final to start NOW. Not just because hockey is a cold-weather sport, and we’re bordering on the beginning of summer (game time temp for the Red Wings-Stars Game 6 in Dallas: only a steamy 92 degrees outside), but finally, we have a Cup Final that could stand for the ages.
But trust the NHL to screw around with things that are better left alone. Just like the last two Cup Finals, this year’s edition has two teams that didn’t meet in the regular season. It’s a disgrace, I tell you. It should be mandatory that every team plays against every other team at least once a year, for goodness’ sake. Luckily, the NHL finally came to its senses, and will implement such a plan this fall. Too bad it took them three years to figure this out and go with what worked before the lockout. It seems like that when the lockout came; it erased the collective memory of the league in terms of how to run a hockey organization. Call it “lockout amnesia”, but whatever it is, in it’s desire to become a better sports league, the NHL has tinkered with way too many things that have worked just fine for, oh, 90 plus years.
But the NHL isn’t the worst, or at least the weirdest, when it comes to scheduling flaws. The ECHL, a minor-league, which released their schedule right before their playoffs began (which makes you wonder why the NHL waits until July to release theirs), has some teams playing a few games outside of their conference, while other teams play all of the games in their conference. Take the Ontario Reign, an expansion team that will play all 72 games in their conference, while their division rival, The Idaho Steelheads, will have to travel across the country for a handful of games. Is this even fair? I know the minors want to cut down on traveling expenses, but can’t the ECHL come up with a system that’s more balanced? Besides, these players will have to travel from coast to coast as they advance into the AHL and ultimately the NHL, why restrict them now? All I know is I got a kick out of the headline that read “Reading (Pa.) Will Travel to Utah and Idaho for First Time in Team History” because I think they actually like the idea of going to those places. Okay, back to the column.)
And doooon’t get me started on the fact that the Cup Finals first two games are on a network only the fraction of the U.S. carries. Well, I think I said it best last year, so I’ll just have Past Me take over for Present Me for a little bit:
“So the biggest hockey event of the year can’t get its first two games put on national TV?
If you’re going to be taken seriously as a major sport in this country, you have to have your championship game or series in its entirety on free, national TV.”
Okay, it’s Present Me writing again, thank you Past Me.
Anyway, I feel like I have to vent before I start talking about good things when it comes to the NHL on a regular basis, sorry about that.
I took a look at who I picked in the preseason, and for the second straight year, I was half right. I had Detroit and Ottawa in the Finals, but I did think the Pens would get as far as the Conference Finals. Ottawa looked like they were going to put away the Eastern Conference by February, but after a meltdown of Britney Spears’ proportions, they were reduced to first-round fodder at the hands (or beaks) of the Pens. It just goes to show how long the NHL season is; how much changes during those six months and 82 games. (It might also show, once again for the 2,152nd time, that I don’t know as much as anyone else, but let’s not go down that dark path.)
Normally, when I do my playoff predictions, I list what the postseason and regular season results were between the two clubs in question. But since the Pens and Red Wings didn’t meet this year (arrghh! Okay okay, I’m all-right now) and have never met in the Stanley Cup Finals, why bother?
So let’s move onto the nitty gritty. And there’s enough grit, sweat, etc among both of these teams, and their respective cities, to choke us all. There are plenty of similarities between the two finalists. Zetterberg-Datsyuk vs. Crosby-Malkin. Osgood vs. Andre-Fleury. Chelios vs. Roberts (the Oldies matchup). Coney Dog vs. Primanti Bros. It goes on and on.
Yet everyone focuses on the age factor, which really isn’t a matchup at all. Because of Crosby, Malkin, Staal et al, the Pens are the young ones, while the Red Wings, with the likes of Chelly and Drake are the old farts. In fact, the average age of the two clubs (factoring only those people who have played in this postseason) isn’t that far apart, with Detroit at just under 30 years, while the average age for Pittsburgh is 27.5. The margin is even smaller when you take out Dominik Hasek, who hasn’t played since the first round. So if a couple of years difference makes one team a bunch of graybeards, then call me, a 35-year-old, ready for the retirement home.
From time to time, I have said that there are certain things, certain qualities, or essentials; a team needs to have in order to be successful in the Stanley Cup playoffs. I think it’s about time I list them (in no order of importance) just to show everyone that in fact these two clubs hit the mark on The Playoff Essentials:
-Good, Solid Goaltending Right Here, Right Now
It doesn’t matter if you were a .500 goalie in the regular season. If you’re good right now, that’s all that matters. Both clubs have good goalies; they just haven’t gotten the credit (namely Osgood) they should deserve. Ozzie has a better GAA than A-F, but A-F is tops in save percentage, saves and wins, and has faced 100 more shots than Ozzie. The big difference is that Ozzie’s been here before (1998), A-F hasn’t.
-Excellent Special Teams (PP and PK)
The Pens are slightly better than the Red Wings in the man advantage (24.6% to 21.0%), yet both are the league best when it comes to the PK at 87.3%. Just watching both of these teams, you can tell they’re so familiar in such situations, able to control the puck and avoid the odd-man rush on the PP, and stay in formation and force plenty of turnovers on the PK. Speaking of TOs. . .
-Low Numbers of Turnovers
A hockey game can change on a dime when one team coughs up the puck. Neither team has flubbed the rubber too often, and they’re both very good forcing the other side into mistakes. I can see the Red Wings doing this slightly better, mainly because of their excellent defense led by the best defender I’ve ever seen, Nicklas Lidstrom.
-Physical All the Way
The Rangers tried to play a physical game against the Pens, but couldn’t sustain it like the Pens could and were out muscled out of the playoffs. Had the Stars started playing physical against the Red Wings, instead of waiting until Games 4 and 5 when it was do-or-die time, then maybe it would have been Pens-Stars in the Cup Finals. Both the Pens and Red Wings deliver many a wicked hit, which could have a neutralizing effect in a long series. I could see why Versus has the first two games of this series on their network, what with all the cage fighting and bull riding they show on a daily basis, because this series shouldn’t be an exception.
So after all that analyzing, I should be able to pick a winner, right? I haven’t felt this conflicted since the 2004 Presidential Election. But instead of picking the lesser of two stupid evils, I’m picking the best of the league. Maybe an intangible will help me out.
Nine times have an Original Six team (like Detroit) and a 1967 Expansion team (like Pittsburgh) have met in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Original Six team has won six of those meetings, but the Pens have taken two of the other three.
Boy, that was about as useless as stats get. So instead of relying on the cold, hard numbers, I’ll go with what my heart says. . .
My Prediction: Pens win in seven, Pittsburgh becomes the new Hockeytown, and The Igloo becomes famous for something other than being in a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.
Next Time: It’s game-by-game coverage of the Stanley Cup Finals from me from here on out. In the meantime, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.