This column will focus on the intriguing matchup between the Red Wings and Penguins. I’ll also answer a fan question that we received last week about the status of the Lightning players recovering from injuries. But first, here’s a postmortem on the Conference Finals.
In the East, I was right, but wrong. I correctly predicted the Penguins would beat the Hurricanes, but I didn’t come close to accurately assessing how that series would go. I thought that Carolina, which showed so much resiliency and guts in beating the Devils and Bruins, would give the Penguins a heck of a series. Instead, the Penguins had their most comfortable series win so far in the playoffs. Carolina did not get the same outstanding goaltending from Cam Ward that it received in the first two rounds. The Penguins scored seven goals in Game 2, six in Game 3 and four more in Game 4 (they did get an empty-netter in each of those contests). Pittsburgh has an explosive offense and it was the most dangerous attack that Carolina had faced so far in the postseason, so Ward was going to have to be on the top of his game. He wasn’t, and that was one big factor why Pittsburgh won so handily. Another reason was the play of Evgeni Malkin. In Games 2 and 3, Malkin netted five goals. Sidney Crosby has been outstanding throughout the postseason and he was again great in the Conference Finals, but Malkin’s elevated play gave the Pens a one-two punch that was unstoppable. Then the Pens got secondary scoring from players like Ruslan Fedotenko, Max Talbot and Miroslav Satan. It was too much to for Carolina to overcome. Then, defensively, the Pens held Eric Staal to one goal in the series. In short, the Penguins enter the Finals playing their best hockey of the season.
The Western Conference went only five games, but except for Detroit’s Game 4 blowout win, every contest was close. Three went into overtime and the other game was tied in the third period before Detroit pulled away. The Red Wings showed some heart and resiliency in this series by finding ways to win without two of their best players – injured stars Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk. Chicago was a tough, talented opponent and the fact that the Red Wings took the series in five games is not insignificant. Now Detroit must hope that Lidstrom and Datsyuk can return for the Finals because the Red Wings are going to need them against the hot Penguins.
This is a rematch of last year’s Final and it’s the first time since 1984 that the same two teams will play in back-to-back seasons. In 1983, the Islanders beat Edmonton to win their fourth straight Cup. Then in 1984, the Gretzky-led Oilers bested the Islanders to capture their first-ever Cup. This matchup has similarities to the Islander-Oiler contests. The young Penguins learned a lot from last year’s experience. Like the Islanders, Detroit’s been through many of these runs and knows what it takes to win. The question then is – will the torch be passed as it was 25 years ago?
At the beginning of the playoffs, if I had been told that Detroit and Pittsburgh would meet again the Finals, I would have felt confident picking Detroit for a repeat. Not so much anymore. As detailed above, the Penguins are playing championship hockey right now. Their players are more equipped to beat Detroit than they were last year. Plus, having three former Cup winners – Fedotenko, Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz – on their roster this year will help tremendously. On the Detroit side, the Wings had to deal with a monumental struggle to beat Anaheim in the second round and sustained significant injuries in the third round. They enter the Finals not on a roll like Pittsburgh. So I think the series comes down to two important factors. First, how healthy and effective will Lidstrom and Datsyuk be? Second, can Pittsburgh maintain its high level of play? My hunch is that both those advantages will go to the Penguins. To paraphrase the late, great Herb Brooks: This is their time. Prediction: Penguins in Six.
We welcome readers to submit questions and I’ll answer them in this weekly column. This one came from Diane Schirmer:
I just wanted to say thank you for keeping the fans updated throughout this LONG off-season with your weekly column. It's a great idea, and I'm hoping it makes the summer go a little faster!
While I don't have a question, I do have a request. Could you please try to get an update on the rehabbing players and let us know how they are progressing? My favorite player is Mike Smith, and it was killing me the last few months not knowing how he was feeling. As a fan, it would just be nice to know how he's doing and if he's making any good progress at getting back on the ice. Same goes for ALL the other injuries (Malone, Murphy, Ranger, and the list unfortunately goes on and on...)
Thanks for all you do for us Lightning fans!
Thanks for the question and the kind words. To the best of my knowledge, all of the rehabbing players are doing well. Paul Ranger and Andrei Meszaros are recovering from their shoulder injuries and expect to be ready for training camp. The same is true for Ryan Malone
and Cory Murphy (who is an unrestricted free agent), who are both allowing their broken bones to heal. Vinny Lecavalier had successful wrist surgery at the end of the season and is also progressing nicely. Additionally, Vinny said that he was going to make it a priority this summer to work on strengthening his surgically-repaired shoulder. In other words, last summer he rehabbed the shoulder but he said it was impossible to fully strengthen it once last season got underway.
As for Mike Smith, his “rehab” is less conventional. Dealing with the ramifications of a concussion can be difficult, since there is no “work” that can be done to rehab it. Instead, it’s all about rest and being patient until the symptoms start to subside. According to General Manager Brian Lawton, Smitty has been feeling better in the past several weeks, which is great news. It’s a situation that the team is continuing to monitor, but in hearing Brian speak at various functions this summer, it certainly sounds as if the team is expecting Mike to be ready to play this fall.
Thanks again for the question. If you have an inquiry, please submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org
and I will try to answer it next week.