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Pre-Game Notes: Waiting in the 'Wings'

by Larry Wigge /
DETROIT -- When has waiting in the Wings meant more?

In this ever-changing landscape in the NHL, where salary cap often dictates who you keep and who you don't, the good teams always seem to have another less-experienced player or two standing by ready to take advantage of his opportunity.

In Detroit, we've seen the emergence of Darren Helm up front and Jonathan Ericsson on defense. But there are more Red Wings waiting in the wings as we saw in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

With the clock becoming a factor early in the third period of a tight game -- Detroit leading 2-1 over Pittsburgh in Game 1 -- 24-year-old Finnish winger Ville Leino, signed as a free agent last summer, had control of the puck behind the Penguin net. Another rookie, 22-year-old Justin Abdelkader, is at the side of the net to the left of Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

"I was kind of trying to buy time," Leino said. "Then I heard Justin yell at me that he was open. I waited another second or two to see which way the Pittsburgh players were going to go and then ..."

Quick pass to Abdelkader, the former Michigan State star, who quickly got off a shot that was stopped by Fleury. Then ...

"The puck sort of squirted in the air. I jumped up to get it," said a somewhat surprised Abdelkader. "I didn't waste any time getting off another shot ... and luckily it went in."

The conflict and suspense of seeing key players go out of the lineup for a shift or a game ... or two ... and seeing that unlikely hero step up is always delicious.

This time it was a veteran Finnish Elite League player in Leino and a former U.S. college standout, both of whom spent most of the season with the Red Wings' AHL farm club at Grand Rapids.

"Ville probably should have been here all year," coach Mike Babcock said earlier in the playoffs. "He's got a presence about him that I really like. He's great with the puck. He can hold onto it for a long time and then make just the right play."

Babcock has also been raving about the future of Abdelkader, "Just is going to be one of those strong players who can get in hard on the forecheck. He's strong kid and may not put a lot of points on the score sheet. But he'll make points with his coach for his hard work and strong play."

Quick quiz -- Who was the last player to score his first goal -- counting regular-season or playoff games -- in the Stanley Cup Final before Detroit's Justin Abdelkader scored an insurance goal in the third period to help the Red Wings win Game 1, 3-1?

Answer: Jim Paek for Pittsburgh in the 1991 Cup Finals against the Minnesota North Stars.

Abdelkader had previously played in four regular-season and seven playoff games. And he scored that goal playing just nine shifts, with just five minutes, 10 seconds of ice time.

As good as it gets -- Chris Osgood, criticized and ridiculed for his poor play in the regular season, once again showed he's money in the bank in the Final after stopping 31 of 32 shots in Detroit's 3-1 Game 1 victory. The triumph boosted Ozzie's career record in the championship round to 9-2. His .818 winning percentage in the Finals is the highest by any of the 34 goaltenders with 10-or-more decisions in Stanley Cup Finals history.

"I think the goalie is the most important player every night. It's hockey. It's like that every year," Babcock said. "I we turned over way too many pucks, but I thought Ozzie did a good job for us. He made some critical saves.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law -- Even without perennial faceoff ace Kris Draper in Game 1 (57 percent winning percentage in his career), the Red Wings were lights out with their puck possession game.

In Game 1, Detroit won 39 of 55 draws -- highlighted by Henrik Zetterberg winning 15 of 20 faceoffs (75 percent) and Darren Helm won 11 of 15 (73 percent).

"We've done our homework on these guys," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after Game 1. "I know it's an area of focus. They're a puck possession team as are we. And starting with the puck is better than not.

"One of the things we've talked about is our wingers being aware and ready to jump in and help out. The center man doesn't often win it clean back, a lot of those faceoff become puck battles off the draw. That's an area we can do a better job at."

Offense from defense -- Defenseman Brad Stuart got credit for Detroit's first goal when his shot bounced off the springy boards at Joe Louis Arena back out in front of the net and hit goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
And Brian Rafalski's shot-pass set up Johan Franzen for the eventual game-winning goal for the Red Wings.

Nothing new for Rafalski in the Stanley Cup Finals after his two Cups wins with New Jersey in 2000 and 2003 and Detroit last year. But Stuart, who isn't often involved in the offense in the regular season, is becoming a secret offensive weapon for the Wins in the Stanley Cup Final.

His goal in Game 1 was his second in 17 games in the 2009 playoffs after tallying the same number in 67 regular-season games. And this comes on the heels of last year's Final when Brad was second in scoring on the Red Wings in the Final series against Pittsburgh with 1 goal and 4 assists in six games, including the game-winning goal in Game 2.

Another number of note: Stuart has scored six goals in 13 career regular-season games against the Penguins and has a pair of goals against them in seven playoff games.

Chalk it up to ... -- Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski was asked about the weird bounces in Game 1 and he reacted like too much is being made of the issue with the springy boards at Joe Louis Arena, even if Brad Stuart and Johan Franzen's goals could be attributed to lively backboards.

"I don't know about weird bounces," said Rafalski. "I'd say true
bounces. To me, it's almost like a pool table, where you play the puck off the boards at an angle and it comes out strong. Not weird, but fair."

Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi wouldn't use the boards as an excuse, but offered this comment: "At Mellon Arena you can throw it in there at 100 mph and it's not going to make it out to the goal line. I think the boards here cost us one goal last year (in three games in the Finals), so we were aware of it, but it's not something we hadn't worked on since we got here."

Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup Final GearNo Déjà vu -- In retrospect to seeing the Penguins fall behind 1-0 in Detroit to start the Stanley Cup Final after being shut out in the first two games at Joe Louis Arena to start the 2008 Cup Finals, Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi suggested that his team was OK with the competition in Game 1 unlike their trip to Detroit at the start of last year's Final.

"Having played them a couple of times this season, we were more
prepared to face them," said Scuderi. "Last year was a big eye-opener for us the way they came at us from the start. They are talented. They are skilled. They try to force you to play their game where they have the puck most of the time.

"In Game 1 this time around, we felt we were right with them, even when it was 3-1. Not like last year when we were run out of here in the first two games."

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