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Welcome to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, where the answers to those questions will go a long way in determining who takes home the Cup, the savvy, experienced and talented Detroit Red Wings or the young, precocious Pittsburgh Penguins.
Game 1 Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio) will start this journey of discovery. And make no mistake about it, this journey doesn’t end because the Pens and Wings are in the Final. Their eyes are on the prize. No one is looking at the first three rounds as a major accomplishment.
“I think reflecting is more what you do after everything's all said and done,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “For me personally, that's the way it is, anyway. And it's more just a sense of preparation and making sure you're ready and prepared for what's to come. But you just remind yourself that this is not something that comes along all the time and we want to make sure that you don't think because you're young it's going to happen every year, every couple of years, whatever it may be. It's a great opportunity to have to take advantage of it.”
The Red Wings, winners of the Presidents’ Trophy for the top record during the regular season, sport few, if any, holes. The commitment to the strong team concept espoused by coach Mike Babcock has been eagerly adopted by veterans like defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, Kris Draper, Chris Chelios and Chris Osgood. But the Wings are far from a one-dimensional picture of gray-haired geezers looking for a last kick at the Cup. The Wings employ two of the League’s most dynamic offensive players in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and other relative newcomers to the lineup like Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler and Niklas Kronwall are setting the Wings’ next generation quite nicely.
In Pittsburgh, the world revolves around Crosby, who is either the best player in the world or darn close to it depending upon who you talk with. A driven, dynamic player who is the team captain at age 20, Crosby is as determined as he is dynamic and this season has been surrounded by a very strong supporting cast, most notably the supremely talented Evgeni Malkin up front as well as a gifted scorer in Marian Hossa. Pittsburgh also has seen goalie Marc-Andre Fleury step to the fore as a terrific netminder who has excelled in the postseason. Now, add in other emerging, young players like Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, Max Talbot, Ryan Whitney and Brooks Orpik, and the Penguins have the goods to not only challenge for the Stanley Cup, but win it.
“Yeah, it's a pretty good group for sure,” Crosby said, agreeing that the 2008 Final is a smorgasbord of talent. “You look at both teams and what they bring. You can look at the NHL awards and things like that that's going to come up, you'll see a lot of the same guys during the series at those. The two best teams in the playoffs are there. But at the same time individually, there're a lot of players I think that are pretty exciting to watch. So it makes for a great series for sure.”
“It's impressive the way they've played together,” Lidstrom said of the Penguins. “They have great individual skills, but they play together as well. So it's very impressive how well they played so far in the playoffs. With some of the young stars they have, they've really responded with authority and playing beyond their years in a way, too, the way they have carried themselves throughout the playoffs.”
Game 1 will likely have a feeling-out process since the clubs haven’t faced off for quite some time. The Red Wings and Penguins did not play each other in the 2007-08 regular season. Their most recent meeting occurred Oct. 7, 2006, a 2-0 Red Wings victory at Pittsburgh. Fifteen of the 20 Red Wings who dressed for that game are still with the club; 10 of the 20 Penguins remain with Pittsburgh, so despite seeing hours of video on one another, there is nothing like going head-to-head with a foe to see how they will react.
“I think it's the same challenge for both teams,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “And they're going to break down their tape and their game and we'll do the same thing with them. This is what we did. Our players are aware how they play. And I'm sure they did the same thing. So I don't think there's a rivalry right now. Maybe the rivalry will start once the series goes on. But I think you're going to see two teams really focused and really battle to win every inch on the ice.”
“I think we played them, if I'm not mistaken, two years ago in their building,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “And two years ago, obviously, it's documented they weren't the same team they are now. I think people have come of age. Obviously, they've had really good draft choices. They were fortunate in the years they had those draft choices that they had star players, they made the right picks. Their management and their coaching has gone in and done a real good job of giving them structure and focus and demand, and their elite players are very elite and they're very young. If the cap doesn't get in the way, they have a chance to be very good for a long time.”
“I won't change the way I've been playing or my game plan going into it,” Wings goalie Chris Osgood said. “They do have some great players and I'll try and watch what their tendencies are, whether it be on the power play or see Crosby, where he likes to pass it, where certain guys like to shoot. I'll always look for it on tape, but for my own game I won't change, but I'll watch their tendency so I can be prepared for them.”
And what have the Wings learned about these Penguins? Plenty.
“They're very individual skilled players,” Lidstrom said. “They can take you on one-on-one, they can challenge you and the defensive pairs. One of the reasons for our team's success has been the way the group of five play on the ice. Not just the D playing solid, but forwards coming back hard and eliminating the time for the teams to pull up and find lanes. So the way we've been playing as a group on the ice, I think it's the team defense, not only the defensemen on our team, but the team defense has been a big part of why we're here now.”
In terms of the experience factor, the Wings have lots of it, with 10 previous Cup winners on the roster. But Lidstrom said the experience gained in a losing effort to Anaheim in last season’s Western Conference Finals will work more for the Wings than having won the Cup in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
“I think it helped the younger players to go through an experience like that where you play deep into the playoffs,” Lidstrom said. “They see the grind, the travel you have to put in and the every-day effort to play in the playoffs. And it is a grind. Every game means so much. It is a grind to go through almost two months of playoff hockey. I think it helped our younger players to go through that and see what it's like and see the older players do what they have to do to prepare themselves every night.”
Osgood said handling the distractions of competing for the Cup also is eased by experience.
“I think on a personal level you just know what to expect,” Osgood said. “Mentally you know how to prepare yourself better for games and kind of put the other stuff on the side and clear your mind for when the game starts. You're more aware of what matters and what doesn't. And you just know how to mentally prepare yourself for games and be ready to play when they do start because there is a lot of stuff going on.”
“I don't think we're putting a lot of thought into that,” Crosby said of the disparity in experience. “We respect their team no matter whether they have older or younger guys. We have respect for their team. We can't control the fact that we have a lot of young guys. That's just the way it is. And we've shown, I think, time and time again in the playoffs that the adversity, we've responded well. And I think that's the main thing. “I think that's what experience shows you, is how to react in adversity and new situations,” Crosby said. “But we've done a great job of doing that the whole year. So I don't think that's something we're really putting a whole lot of thought into.”
Babcock has been through a Stanley Cup Final as the coach of the Anaheim Ducks in 2003. He didn’t come away with the trophy that time, but did learn some valuable lessons on how to deal with the experience.
“I've asked myself the same question many, many times, to say what's the experience give you, what's the experience give you?” Babcock said. “I think when you don't have experience, you think it's overrated. When you've been through it you're supposed to be more poised and calmer and better at it and more prepared and all those things. I don't know if that guarantees success. To me, what I know is there's a huge difference between the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Stanley Cup Final. And the giddiness of the players, exuberance and excitement. Look at the people here. It's an exciting time. It's the same if you're 38 or 21. It's exciting.
“I think our key and our focus is to do – not I think – I know. Stay in the process, enjoy the process, and if you do that, you have a chance to enjoy the rewards at the end. And I'm a big believer you do what you do.”
Therrien counters the argument that the Wings have a lock on experience, noting his team learned plenty from a 2007 first-round exit at the hands of the Ottawa Senators.
“Last year, we were like 16 players who didn't know about NHL playoff, and that's a lot,” Therrien said. “Even if you try to prepare those guys as much as you can, until you have that taste of the playoff, it's demanding. And on top of that we played a team that was really sharp, was playing really well. They went to the Stanley Cup Final. So that was a good team. That was a good test for us. And we were there. And all those games we were battling with that team. Yes, it could be different to be in the Stanley Cup Final, but we went through the experience of the playoff. This is going to be a playoff game. This is just going to be another step.
“And I really like the way we've been playing so far in the playoffs,” Therrien said. “Both defensively and offensively. The confidence is there. When we started last year, I'm not quite sure if the confidence was there. But I can tell you, this is a group, our focus, this is a group that has a lot of confidence in themselves.”