|The last time the Penguins faced the Detroit Red Wings they walked off with the Stanley Cup.
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Two teams from opposite conferences squaring off 15 times over a 10-year period doesn’t make for a rivalry.
But 15 matchups over the past two regular- and postseasons sure can amp up a rivalry. Particularly when the two combatants have done battle in each of the past two Stanley Cup Finals, with each team claiming a championship in the other’s building.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings, two of the most talent-laded squads in the National Hockey League, have gone from not seeing each other during the 2007-08 regular season to the game no hockey fan wants to miss.
“It is always pretty fun to play them,” Marc-Andre Fleury
said. “We have built up a good rivalry.”
By this point, the back story is well known by all.
Upstart Pittsburgh drops a hard-fought six-game series to Detroit in the ’08 Final. Three weeks later then-Penguins forward Marian Hossa departs from Pittsburgh to Detroit – saying he has a better chance to win a Cup in the process – infuriating the Penguins fan-base.
Pittsburgh and Detroit square off in the Final for a second-consecutive season in ’09. Penguins fans get the last laugh as their team upends the Wings with a 2-1 victory in Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena to clinch Pittsburgh’s third championship. Hossa goes goalless in the series.
And such events are how a rivalry is born.
Sunday marks the first time these two teams will step onto the same sheet of ice since Fleury dove across his crease to rob Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom’s rebound attempt in the waning seconds of Game 7. The Penguins look forward to facing the perennial Western Conference power in a nationally televised tilt at 12:30 p.m. on NBC.
“It was fun, especially when you win,” Fleury said. “I think it was always such a hard battle to fight every night, every shift. They didn’t give us much so we had to battle to get those wins. That just felt so much better (when we won).”
When the puck is dropped on Sunday afternoon, the Penguins expect both themselves and their fans to be ready for what should be an intense battle.
“They are a really good hockey team,” captain Sidney Crosby
said. “You look forward to those hockey games because you want to see how your team responds. They have been playing some good hockey lately and getting some guys back that weren’t healthy. It should be a huge test.”
“I am sure it will be exciting for the fans to see that, especially at home here,” Ruslan Fedotenko said. “I think it will be fun for everybody.”
Detroit doesn’t enter this game as the same team which has run rampant on the rest of the NHL over the past two regular seasons. Thanks to offseason defections, injuries and players having down seasons the Red Wings sit in eighth place in the Western Conference playoff field heading into Saturday’s games.
|Detroit felt like the Penguins did two seasons ago following the Penguins' 2-1 Cup-clinching victory on June 12, 2009. |
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During the offseason Detroit lost 82 goals from their lineup when Hossa (Chicago Blackhawks) and Mikael Samuelsson (Vancouver Canucks) departed via free agency, and young sniper Jiri Hudler elected to play in Russia.
Three youngsters who were expected to step up and fill the void, Ville Leino, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm, have scored a combined 15 goals in their stead – eight of which have come from Helm.
More crushing to the Wings, however, has been a rash of injuries which have severely decimated their lineup. Among the players to miss extended action are Johan Franzen (three games played), Jason Williams (missed 38 games), Niklas Kronwall (missed 30 games), Tomas Holmstrom (missed 12 games and counting) and Valtteri Filppula (missed 26 games).
Detroit finally appears to be over their injury trouble as all of the above but Franzen and Holmstrom have since returned, and the latter appears to be a good bet to resume game action against the Penguins on Sunday.
“When you have those injuries you definitely feel them,” Fedotenko said. “You try to work through that. Still, it is hard to work through the injuries over the course of the year.”
“Getting some of those guys back is almost like picking up guys at the trade deadline,” Crosby said. “They are getting a lot of guys back. We all realize what a boost that was for us when we got our guys back.”
While most of the injured Wings will be back on the ice on Sunday, one familiar face probably will not.
Goaltender Chris Osgood, who has picked up 29 wins for Detroit over the past two postseasons and has three Stanley Cup championships on his resume, has struggled in ’09-10. His record stands only 7-8-4 while his goals-against average and save percentage have soared to 2.94 and .891 respectively.
Twenty-five-year-old rookie Jimmy Howard has taken over the No. 1 reigns between the pipes. Howard has a 19-11-5 record, 2.30 goals-against average and .925 save percentage – which ranks fifth in the NHL as of Saturday.
When you add it all up, Crosby says the Penguins should get a good test at where their game stands when they face a team many still believe is a favorite to emerge from the Western Conference for a third-consecutive season.
“They are a really good hockey team,” Crosby said. “You look forward to those hockey games because you want to see how your team responds. They have been playing some good hockey lately and getting some guys back that weren’t healthy. It should be a huge test.”