I’m in the air on my flight from Albany, NY over to Detroit for Game I of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final. For the 11th consecutive Final, I have the privilege of calling the play-by-play for NHL International’s TV audience. We generally go out to about 180 countries around the world. Some countries will have their own announcers do a translation of our call, but any country that has an English speaking channel will use our description of the action. I will be working with Joe Micheletti for the 8th consecutive Final. Joe is the fine analyst for the N.Y. Rangers on Madison Square Garden Network.
We’ve heard from people over the years that have heard our call of the Stanley Cup Final from places like South Africa, Malaysia, Japan, Brazil and England. This years’ match up could draw the largest audiences ever in hockey mad countries in Europe. The Pittsburgh Penguins have several European stars: Marian Hossa (Slovakia), Petr Sykora (Czech Republic), Jarkko Ruutu (Finland) and Sergei Gonchar & Evgeny Malkin (Russia). But the country that will likely have the most interest in this series is Sweden. The Detroit Red Wings have 7 Swedish players: Nick Lidstrom, Nick Kronwall, Andres Lilja, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen and Mikael Samuelsson. The Wings have other Euro stars as well: Dominic Hasek & Jiri Hudler (Czech Republic), Pavel Datsyuk (Russia) and Valteri Filppula (Finland).
In trying to handicap this series, there are several factors to consider:
1) Game 1 will be first meeting this season In this age of digital video, the internet and virtually all games being televised, it’s hard to imagine there are any secrets or surprises when two teams get together. Having said that, this series could resemble the 1995 Stanley Cup Final between the Red Wings and the N.J. Devils. That was the year of the 48-game season due to the first lockout. The Wings were a heavy favorite in many circles despite the fact the two teams didn’t play that year (in fact, the two conferences had no cross over games that season). I remember talking to some of the Devils players after they had completed a 4 game sweep. They all felt a certain apprehension going into the series, but most of that feeling went away during the first period of Game 1. To a man, the Devils knew very early in that series that they were going to have no problem competing with the talented Wings. NJ was a bigger and stronger team and they possessed enough skill and skating ability to keep up with the pace. I see this Pittsburgh team as having the size edge over the Wings and they can match the depth of talent on Detroit’s roster with Crosby, Malkin, Hossa and Staal. On the other hand, Pittsburgh had better be ready for the “compete level” of Detroit’s top players. What separates Datsyuk and Zetterberg from other stars is not just what they do with the puck, but how hard they work to get it back. Mike Babcock has done a great job of making this Detroit team a harder and tougher team to play against, but this will be their ultimate test.
2) Youth vs. Experience The Red Wings have 10 players who have a combined 23 Stanley Cup rings…that’s impressive. The Penguins have 3 players that have combined for 4 rings (2 of those rings belong to Darryl Sydor who will not play unless there is an injury on Pitt’s defense & 1 belongs to Gary Roberts who will be a scratch at least in Game 1). What this means is that the Wings have a lot more players that know what to expect in the next two weeks. I’ve been impressed with how the young Penguins have gotten better in each series. They are maturing right before our eyes. But, the Final is a new level of pressure and distraction. There are more media demands, ticket demands and other distractions that can detract from a player’s ability to stay focused on the task at hand.
3) Goaltending Marc Andre Fleury is finally living up to the hype that goes with being the first overall pick in the draft (2003). He bounced back from an ankle injury earlier this season and has been terrific throughout these playoffs. Chris Osgood continues to be the Rodney Dangerfield of goaltenders. He’s been the back up on a Cup winner (1997) as well as the main guy on a Cup winner (1998) in Detroit. He took over for Hasek midway through game 4 of the Nashville series and has been phenomenal, incuding a 9 game winning stgreak. Fleury’s athleticism will be tested against Detroit’s skill and patience with the puck. Osgood may once again see his club with an advantage in shots on goal, but the quality of the chances he’ll face from these Penguins will be superior to anything he’s seen so far.
So, what do I think? Pittsburgh has an edge overall with their forwards over the Detroit forwards. Detroit has a bigger edge with their defense (Lidstrom, Rafalsi, Kronwall) over Pittsburgh’s defense (Gonchar, Orpik, Whitney). The goaltending is a push. If Johan Franzen can play, I go with Detroit in 6. But, if he can’t, the match ups swing in the Penguin’s favor and I would go with Pittsburgh in 7. How’s that for a definitive answer?!
Before I sent this, I checked on the Coyotes’ website and saw that Panger made his selection from the comfort of his backyard pool with Matt Rosen. Ironically, I’m in Detroit working as is Matt’s dad Sam Rosen, who is calling the series for NHL Radio!