Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wings Cup Drive gets Staaled

The Stanley Cup Finals have reached game seven for the 15th time since the best-of-seven format came into effect in 1939. For the seventh time, the Detroit Red Wings will take part in the ultimate battle - one game, winner takes home the Cup. The Wings have won three of the contests - 1950 over the Rangers and back-to-back victories over Montreal in 1954 and 1955. They have lost three times, in 1942 to the Maple Leafs after going up three games to none and 2 more losses to the Leafs in 1945 and 1964. How will the modern day Wings react to a game seven against the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Regardless of the outcome of Friday night’s game, one thing that can be said about this year’s Penguins squad, they do not know the word quit. The Pens have already come back once this year from a 0-2 deficit against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. After 104 games for the Wings and 105 games for the Pens, not counting exhibition games, it all comes down to one game. The thrill of victory for one team and the agony of defeat for the other.

When sitting to write this article, several headlines crossed my mind, Super Mario and the Crosby Kids, Osgood or Os-great, and Beware the Curse of the Rental Player. I settled on Wings Cup Drive gets Staaled, so let’s start there...

With Crosby, Malkin and Gonchar on the Penguins and Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom on the Wings, there was certainly no shortage of star-power on each team going into the final series. The goalies seem to be evenly matched, with the veteran Osgood coming off an average season but performing well in the playoffs and Marc-Andre Fleury maturing with every passing game. The real battle and possibly the deciding factor would be found amongst the grinders and depth players on each team.

The Red Wings found extra scoring help early in the series with Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader emerging as scoring threats after spending the season in Grand Rapids in the AHL. Helm, from St. Andrews, Manitoba has 23 regular season games under his belt and has yet to score his first regular season goal in the NHL but with a win on Friday, he will have his name on the Stanley Cup twice before starting his rookie season in the Fall. Playing in 22 games during this year’s playoffs, Helm has four goals and one assist.

Abdelkader, a native of Muskegon, Michigan, has played in four NHL regular season games and is yet to register a point in the regular season. The 42nd pick overall in the 2005 NHL draft, he has performed well filling in for the injured Kris Draper and has two goals and one assist in 10 games during the 2009 playoffs. His two goals came in the first two games of the series and were instrumental in building the 2-0 lead in the series for the Wings.

On the other side of the ice, Pittsburgh’s line of Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy and Jordan Staal have finally found their legs and have netted some crucial goals to bring the series to game seven. The checking line of the Penguins came alive in game six, with Staal’s 4th goal of the playoffs to open the scoring and Kennedy’s game winner; his 5th of the playoffs.
The all Ontario line stole the show in game six and could become the main factor in game seven. Cooke, the wily veteran from Belleville, Ontario has 1 goal and 6 assists in the 2009 playoffs. Staal, a native of Thunder Bay, may have scored the most important goal of the series in game 4 with his short-handed effort that beat Osgood and he has tallied 4 goals and 5 assists in 23 playoff games.

Kennedy, the Sault Ste. Marie native, has really begun to shine on a Pittsburgh team that is loaded with stars. In his second year with the Pens, he scored a career high 15 goals during the regular season and his awareness and attention to detail at both ends of the ice has impressed many hockey observers. Under contract for two more years in Pittsburgh, Kennedy will only improve as his career progresses. A fourth round pick in the 2004 entry draft, the former Soo Greyhound is skating his way to a long NHL career.

In a game seven situation, analysts look for anything that could be a deciding factor leading up to game time. Besides the emergence of Pittsburgh’s all Ontario line, there is also the curse of the rental player to consider. When the Red Wings signed Marian Hossa to a one-year contract last summer, I immediately made them my pick to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. As the dog days of summer turned into Fall, I began to re-evaluate my decision. Ultimately, I did not change my pre-season pick but I had my doubts because of Hossa. Openly stating that he came to Detroit because he wanted to win a cup, he became a rental in my opinion. That never turns out well...

Ray Bourque spent an extra season in Colorado before finally lifting the cup, Mats Sundin never came into form as a Canuck after skipping the first half of the season and last year, the Penguins sold the farm to obtain Hossa from the Atlanta Thrashers. The Red Wings had to be aware of the rental factor as Hossa began to struggle in the playoffs, Wings management began circulating the idea that perhaps a long-term contract with Hossa was possible. They tried to break the curse...

Unfortunately, Hossa has not found the back of the net in the Finals and has only three assists against his former club. If the Red Wings hope to lift the Cup on Friday night, their stars need to play like stars, Hossa needs to find his scoring touch and the Detroit depth players will need to find an answer to Pittsburgh’s Ontario line of Cooke, Kennedy and Staal. One game - one winner... it should be one heck of a game! Have a great sports day everyone.

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