With the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs almost upon us, we have a great Wednesday Night Rivalry with the Detroit Red Wings visiting the Pittsburgh Penguins in a potential first-round preview (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2).
The Red Wings have made an impressive playoff run despite numerous injuries to their key players. But the Penguins have also lost a lot of man games to injuries. They've had a tough go from an injury standpoint and have received major contributions from numerous places. Sidney Crosby has had an unbelievable season and Olli Maatta has been amazing as a rookie. Marc-Andre Fleury was awesome the other night against the Colorado Avalanche in that shootout win. A guy that doesn't get a lot of attention in Pittsburgh is Matt Niskanen. I'm not sure why. He's been one of their most consistent players on a team with a lot of excellent players. I love the season he has had. He's gone largely under the radar and has played exceptionally well.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT RIVALRY
Faceoff: Malkin vs. DatsyukAdam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor
With the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings set to face off on NBCSN's Wednesday Night Rivalry, NHL.com takes a look at whether Evgeni Malkin or Pavel Datsyuk is more likely to power his team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. READ MORE ›
The big challenge for me with Pittsburgh is who are they? I know they can score, but I don't feel like they have played to their offensive talent. I know that they have that "go north" philosophy. But outside of James Neal and Evgeni Malkin, I don't think they use the width of the rink enough to make plays. I don't think there's enough give and go and interchanges when they attack. As lethal and talented as they are, they can be more productive, which is scary. I don't think they've hit their full stride offensively. And not just because of injuries. Just stylistically, there is a gap between how they defend and how they attack. It's still not 100 percent in synch. There are more opportunities for them to attack in a more varied way.
They like to push the pace, which is fine. They want to keep the opposition on their heels. But when I look at the pure talent of the Penguins, I think there is a lot more meat on the bone offensively than what we've seen so far. Not enough diagonal passes. A great example of what their team can be is Malkin and Neal. You see it in their game, but I don't see it enough through the rest of their lineup.
I think Detroit is dangerous heading into the playoffs. With Detroit, what is so crazy is nobody really has the full book on how to stop their kids. If I'm an opposing team, I'm not only talking to my pro scouts and video coach, I'm talking to people around the American Hockey League. What did you guys do to slow these guys down last year when they won the Calder Cup with Grand Rapids? Maybe I'm speaking to so-and-so with the Lake Erie Monsters or so-and-so with the Manchester Monarchs. How did you stop these guys? There is no long, detailed scouting report for them at the NHL level. With Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco, they're so unpredictable. It's hard enough to check Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen. It's the ultimate curveball.
Datsyuk recently returned to the lineup after dealing with a knee injury and gives the Red Wings more depth offensively and takes the heat off the team's young forwards. He can just come in and be good. He doesn't need to place excess pressure on himself. Just play within his game and get in the rhythm. That will only add to the confidence of an already-talented Detroit team.
It was a very prominent player on that team who plays a very big role. That really impressed me, and his own individual game has been great this season.
Keep an eye on Detroit in the playoffs. They have a good mix of veteran winners, and now they have the young guys who won in Grand Rapids. They've played in playoff situations before. They've had playoff success. They have holdover veteran guys who have won Stanley Cups and won internationally. This is a mature younger group, more mature than they get credit for.
I'm looking to see the pace and tempo of this game. You've got Pittsburgh, who likes to play fast and "push the puck north," as coach Dan Bylsma likes to say. Then Detroit has this injection of speed and youth; young Detroit speed against Pittsburgh's style.
The team that does the best job of winning the neutral zone wins this game. Very similar to what we saw with the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues on Sunday. Chicago controlled the neutral zone and forced turnovers there and was able to turn it back and generate the attack and score goals in a 4-2 win. That neutral zone play will also be a factor on Wednesday.