Congratulations to the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Their path to the title was a bumpy one – they needed to win four of five games from Detroit after dropping the first two and had to capture Game Seven on the road. Let’s take a look at how they did it.
As a point of reference, we’ll start with last year’s matchup between the Red Wings and Penguins. While the Pens extended Detroit to six games, I thought the Wings were the better team. They blew out Pittsburgh in the first two games and controlled play through most of the deciding Game Six in Pittsburgh. The Pens won Game Five, but needed a last-minute sixth-attacker goal to extend the game and the series.
Heading into this year’s Final, it was clear that the Penguins had narrowed that gap. Pittsburgh had found its game under head coach Dan Bylsma (who took over in late February when the Penguins were languishing in 10th place in the East). They were peaking at the right time, playing their best hockey of the season as they headed into the Final. And perhaps most importantly, they were better equipped to handle the pressure that comes with a Final appearance – the players who were with them in 2008 had learned from last year’s loss and many of their additions, including Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko and Chris Kunitz, had won Cups with other teams.
Detroit, on the other hand, was not clicking on all of its cylinders (compared to the state of the 2008 team as it entered the Final). In earlier rounds, the Wings had sustained injuries to several key players, including Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Kris Draper. Lidstrom played in all seven games of the Final, but he was likely not at full strength. Datsyuk and Draper did miss the early games of the series. Incidentally, before Penguins fans get up in arms, I am not implying that Pittsburgh got lucky and won because the Wings had injuries. It’s true that staying healthy is a key part of winning a championship and specifically, the road to the Stanley Cup is a long and treacherous one. Still, this gap closure from last year had more to do with Pittsburgh’s improvement and less due to a Detroit drop off.
So not surprisingly, this year’s Final was a closely-contested battle between two evenly-matched, excellent teams. In other words, it was an extraordinarily entertaining Final. The series only had one clunker game – Game Five, in which the Pens didn’t play all that well and hurt themselves with bad penalties. The other six contests came down to which team made a few more plays. Heading into Game Seven, a lot was made of the fact that Pittsburgh had only scored two total goals in the three games at the Joe. But the Pens could have easily won both of the first two games in the series – the difference was that, unlike Detroit, they didn’t finish enough of the chances they were generating. In Games Three and Four, the Wings squandered a pair of 2-1 leads and it was Pittsburgh’s turn to make some plays, including a three-goal outburst during the second period of Game Four.
After the blowout loss in Game Five, the Penguins faced elimination. But they were able to win both Games Six and Seven not only because they got some key goals and important saves/defensive plays at key times. There were other reasons. They effectively shut down Detroit’s attack with Championship-style teamwork. All five skaters on the ice worked in unison and as a club, the Pens made very few mistakes over the course of the final two contests. But Detroit did, and the Pens were able to capitalize on those Red Wing errors. Also, I thought it was very important that the Penguins never had to play from behind in Games Six and Seven and that could have helped them execute their team game as well as they did. From the Detroit perspective, playing from behind made the task of getting that fourth win all the more difficult. And lastly, in Games Six and Seven, the Penguins got goals from players other than their top stars. Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy and Max Talbot accounted for the four goals the Penguins scored in those last two decisive games.
As so many other Cup winners will attest, the Penguins needed their best two players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, to produce points throughout the playoffs (and they certainly did), but they also needed timely goals from other players. (Lightning fans remember Ruslan Fedotenko’s heroics in Game Seven against Calgary in 2004). At the same time, Crosby and Malkin, neither of whom posted eye-popping offensive numbers against Detroit, played terrific two-way hockey throughout the Final. Teams that win Stanley Cups are great teams, and everyone whose name appears on the Cup has made an important contribution to the winning effort. This was definitely the case with the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Now that the 2008-09 NHL season has reached its conclusion, we can set our sights on the Entry Draft, occurring on June 26 and 27th in Montreal. As always, please submit your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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