DETROIT - Detroit Red Wings
captain Nicklas Lidstrom
has been here many times before, but he's never seen anything quite like what he's about to see.
When Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final gets under way at Joe Louis Arena on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio), Lidstrom will be facing a Pittsburgh Penguins' team that boasts more young stars than American Idol. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is still three months shy of his 21st birthday. Evgeni Malkin is a Hart Trophy candidate. Jordan Staal – who has six goals in the playoffs after scoring only 12 during the regular season – is 19 years of age.
Nonetheless, Pittsburgh's youth hasn't prevented it from bulldozing its way to the Stanley Cup Final. The Penguins have played 14 games this postseason and won 12 of them. Certainly, Detroit is aware of the challenge that lies ahead.
"It's impressive the way they've played together," Lidstrom said. "They have great individual skills, but they play together as well. 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 they're playing beyond their years in a way, too."
Lidstrom was 27 when he won his first Stanley Cup with the Red Wings back in 1997. He played a huge role on that club, but that was his sixth season in the NHL. And while some prognosticators are picking Detroit to win this series based on experience, Lidstrom doesn't see that disparity playing a major factor.
"I'm sure they're very excited about first of all being in the Final and being a big part of their teams," Lidstrom said. "You can tell they're playing with lots of confidence. They're playing well. I don't think that's going to be a huge factor, the experience part, because they are such impact players on their team. So I don't think that's going to be a big issue here."
Defense, however will be. Despite several key injuries on the blue line, the Red Wings shined defensively all season long and allowed the fewest number of goals in the League (184). Now, Detroit faces its toughest task yet – containing the likes of Crosby, Malkin and Marian Hossa.
"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 plays 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."
Not only do the Wings have capable defensemen, but their forwards know a thing or too about defense, too. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who combined for close to 200 points during the regular season, are both Selke Trophy candidates as two of League's top defensive forwards.
"It's the way we've been playing as a group on the ice," Lidstrom said. "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."
Now that they're here, they'll be facing a team they didn't play all season long. It certainly will benefit the Wings that defenseman Brian Rafalski – who spent the previous seven seasons in New Jersey before joining Detroit as a free agent last summer – saw plenty of the Penguins last season.
"It helps," Lidstrom said. "It helps having a player who knows more about their tendencies and their players than most of us do, haven't played against them. So he's been helpful in just little things that you notice – whether it's on watching tape or watching the game when they were playing in the previous series, and just get a feel of their tendencies. It does help having a player that's played a lot against them in the past."
Rafalski admitted several players have gone to him seeking advance on how to try to play against Crosby & Co. But with Hossa now in the mix, as well as Petr Sykora, the Pens will have a bit of a different look since Rafalski last faced them.
"They've made a lot of changes even in the last year," Rafalski said. "You look at some of the acquisitions at the trade deadline like Hal Gill and Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis … those are all new faces that I haven't seen them with. From what I remember, it's a pretty good system."
The Red Wings certainly remember what happened to them last year – they fell in the conference finals to the Anaheim Ducks – and have used their experience to their advantage this time around. Between that and the wake-up call they received from the Dallas Stars – they saw a 3-0 series lead trimmed to 3-2 before winning Game 6 – Lidstrom believes the Red Wings are prepared for what is primed to be a phenomenal Final.
"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 everyday effort to play in the playoffs. And it is a grind, even though 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."
Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.