Penguins, Wings will learn to loathe
The last time Penguins general manager Ray Shero had a stake in the Stanley Cup final, his dad was coaching the Philadelphia Flyers in a series made famous by the thick layer of fog inside Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium.
Thirty-three years later -- tonight, at Joe Louis Arena, to be precise -- Shero will pit his Penguins against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 1 of another Stanley Cup final.
There's no fog in the forecast, just a thick layer of intrigue. These teams have not met since early last season and share very little history, so it'll take a while to work up some good old-fashioned hockey hostility.
Maybe even a whole period.
The World Series once carried the kind of combustible suspense that presents itself in the pairing of unfamiliar foes (before the pestilence known as interleague play, anyway).
This encounter, which could last up to two weeks, will unfold like a blind date. Or maybe like a toddler who acts on the impulse to smash two objects together.
Will one obliterate the other?
Will it even make a dent?
Or will the objects bounce off one other, prompting the child to repeat the experiment?
Seven games, sweep either way or something in-between. No outcome would be a shock.
For all we know, Detroit could impose its system and hoard the puck and expose the Penguins as not-ready-for-prime-timers who rode great fortune to the final only to find they don't yet belong on hockey's biggest stage.
Or the Penguins could use their fresh, young legs to jump the Wings early and expose them as top-heavy, over-the-hill softies who were lucky the Dallas Stars were so fried by the time the Western Conference final commenced.
I'm guessing something between those extremes.
How about we whittle this thing down a bit, using the paint-by-numbers approach?
You know, keep it simple:
378 -- Nicklas Lidstrom's career plus-minus rating. Wanna beat the Wings• Better grab a lead, because Lidstrom rules the third period when his team's ahead.
87 -- All eyes will be on 20-year-old Sidney Crosby, who has taken a team to the final faster than Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky.
63 -- Faceoff winning percentage for Detroit's Kris Draper. Will this be the series in which the Penguins' flawed faceoff work is exposed?
46 -- Age of Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios, who along with defense partner Brett Lebda, can be victimized. Chelios has been battling injuries (no, he didn't fall and break a hip). Andreas Lilja is no less vulnerable.
36.3 -- Shots per game for the Red Wings, who are masters at finding the right angles to shoot from, thus avoiding bodies on the path to the net. They've been outshot once in the playoffs (and they lost the game)
29 -- Hello, Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins' goaltender hasn't had to a steal game yet. He might have to here. Fleury will have to be the Penguins' best player if they are to win the series.
25 -- Maxime Talbot's number, which must be called often to skate with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy. His speed is critical.
12 -- Goals for Detroit's Johan Franzen, most of any player in the playoffs even though he hasn't played since Game 1 against Dallas. His availability and effectiveness could swing the series.
5 -- Shorthanded goals for the Red Wings in the playoffs, matching their regular-season total. The Penguins should think long and hard about whether they want Evgeni Malkin on the left point during power plays, with the likes of Zetterberg, Datsyuk and perhaps Franzen licking their lips on the penalty kill.
1 -- First goal wins• Red Wings had the best record in the league when scoring first (43-5-2) and were 11-16-5 when the other guys did. The Penguins are 10-0 in the playoffs when they score first, 2-2 when they don't.
0 -- Times we need to discuss the Penguins' pending free agents during this series. Please, enjoy the moment.
"These are the two best teams," says ex-Penguins winger Kevin Stevens. "They might as well play."
Which one will emerge• I say the Penguins, using those young legs to survive seven increasingly bitter games.
In this case, unfamiliarity will breed contempt.