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Pittsburgh vs. Detroit Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins (33-21-1-67) vs. Detroit Red Wings (26-19-9-61)
Where: Mellon Arena

When:
Sunday, January 31, 12:30 p.m.
Radio:
WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
TV:
NBC

Season Series: This will be the first of two matchups in 2009-10 between the only two teams to play in the Stanley Cup Final the past two seasons. Pittsburgh dethroned the Red Wings in one of the most memorable seven-game series in recent memory last June. Detroit sprinted to 2-0 and 3-2 leads in the series but the Penguins pulled out back-to-back 2-1 victories in Games 6 and 7 to capture the franchise’s third Stanley Cup. Marc-Andre Fleury was sensational in Game 7 with 23 saves, including a dramatic last-second stop on Nicklas Lidstrom just before the final buzzer, while Maxime Talbot scored both Pittsburgh goals. These two teams split the regular-season series last year, each winning in the other’s building. Jordan Staal had a hat trick and assisted on Ruslan Fedotenko’s game-winning goal in overtime as the Penguins took down the Wings, 7-6, on Nov. 11, 2008 at Joe Louis Arena.
 
LOWDOWN ON THE RED WINGS
There would be little argument if you wanted to call the Red Wings the team of the decade. Not after they picked up two Stanley Cups, eight-straight division titles and nine postseason appearances in nine tries. Detroit has ended the past two campaigns facing the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final, winning Lord Stanley two seasons ago, and dropping a hard-fought seven-game series to Pittsburgh last June. Long-term injuries to several key players, including Niklas Kronwall, Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom have crippled the Wings, who head into Sunday’s contest sitting precariously in the eighth and final playoff position in the Western Conference.

Detroit is led by one of the top head coaches in the league, and a guy who had a tremendous impact on the way Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma models his system – Mike Babcock. Love or hate his confident personality, Babcock is a proven winner. In six seasons with the Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks, Babcock’s teams have been to three Stanley Cup Finals, where he has won once (2008), and twice lost in the seventh game (2009, Detroit vs. Pittsburgh; 2003, Anaheim vs. New Jersey).
 
NEW FACES
Injuries and the wear and tear of three straight deep runs through the postseason have sapped Detroit of some of their offense. Another problem is that free agent signee Todd Bertuzzi has been the only new contributor who has really helped compensate for the offseason losses of Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson. Part of that reason is youngsters Ville Leino and Justin Abdelkader, who scored in both Games 1 and 2 of the 2009 Cup Final, have failed to progress.

Bertuzzi, 34, was the preeminent power forward in the game during his prime. He has never been able to fully regain that form since leaving Vancouver following the 2005-06 season. With a team-leading 15 goals and 30 points in 54 games (one of just three Wings to appear in every game), Bertuzzi is on pace for his best statistical campaign since that year. This is the second time Bertuzzi has suited up for the Wings, as he played for Detroit during the ’06-07 stretch run, when he notched four points (2G-2A) in eight games and added seven points (3G-4A) in 16 postseason games.

Jason Williams also returns to Detroit for a second tour of duty. Williams played for the Red Wings from 2000-20007. He split last season between the Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets, picking up 19 goals and 47 points. Williams returned to the lineup on Friday night after missing 38 games due to a fractured right fibula and scored a goal. In 16 games he has picked up eight points (3G-5A).
 
FORWARDS
The high-powered Red Wings offense is down almost a full goal per game compared to last season. Detroit led the NHL by averaging 3.52 goals per contest in ’08-09 but as of Saturday they rank 22nd (tied) in the league with an average of 2.54 goals per game. With the Olympic break approaching, Detroit currently has not one player on a point-per-game pace.

Detroit’s attack is once again led by the dynamic two-way duo of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Datsyuk, who missed Games 1-4 of the Stanley Cup Final due to injury, has a team-leading 43 points (14G-29A) in 52 games. The 31-year-old Russian is the four-time reigning Lady Byng Trophy winner and has also captured back-to-back Selke Trophies. Datsyuk has picked up 97 points in each of his past two seasons. Zetterberg, 29, has been known to play some of his best hockey, particularly in a shutdown role against Sidney Crosby, against the Penguins. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP following the 2008 campaign. Zetterberg currently ranks second behind Datsyuk with 41 points (13G-28A) in 46 games. Last season the former Selke Trophy finalist was an NHL second-team all-star.

Indications from Detroit are that the Penguins will have to deal with a net-front presence Tomas Holmstrom on Sunday. The Swedish forward has missed the past 12 games due to a fractured foot. Holmstrom’s forte is creating havoc from just outside the opposition’s paint – and few in the business are better than he is at doing so. Despite not playing in a month he is still tied with Todd Bertuzzi for the team lead with 15 goals, including seven on the power play.

One player on the rise for the Red Wings is 25-year-old Finn Valtteri Filppula, whose play has picked up since his return from a 26-game absence with a broken wrist. In the 17 games since his return, Filppula has notched 12 points (2G-10A). For the season he has 18 points (4G-14A) in 28 games. Daniel Cleary, most remembered in these parts for being stoned by Marc-Andre Fleury on a breakaway late in Game 6 of the Final which would have tied the score, is on pace to approach his usual 40 points with 24 (10G-14A) in 42 games. He has notched five of those points (1G-4A) over his previous six games.

While youngsters Ville Leino (seven points in 42 games) and Justin Abdelkader (six points and minus-11 rating in 50 games) have disappointed, Darren Helm appears to have taken the next step in his development. Entering this season the 23-year-old Winnipeg native had picked up six goals in 41 postseason games over the past two seasons, but had yet to score in 23 regular-season games over that same span. He has begun to emerge as a potential second-line type forward down the road with 16 points (8G-8A) in 47 games.
 
DEFENSEMEN
You don’t win a Stanley Cup and come within a combined seven wins of capturing two more over the past three postseasons without a championship defense. Detroit features a defensive corps as steady and mobile as any in the league – led by future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom (See Player Spotlight below).

As great an all-around player as Lidstrom is, his frequent partner, Brian Rafalski, is just a notch below. Rafalski, 36, has continued to play at such a high level he has been named an alternate captain for Team USA at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver next month. It will be his third Olympic Games. Undersized but not under-talented, Rafalski has picked up 50-or-more points in four of his first nine seasons, including a career-high 59 last year (10G-49A). His 23 points (4G-19A) in 50 games this season might have him off his usual pace, but he continues to log major minutes (24:07) while ranking second to Lidstrom on the Wings with a plus-14 rating.

If any of the Penguins elect to skate through the neutral zone or into the Detroit end of the rink with their head down, chances are good they will quickly meet one of the shoulders of Niklas Kronwall. Detroit’s other Swedish defenseman has evolved into one of the top shutdown defenders in the game. He has drawn the assignment against Sidney Crosby during the past two Cup Finals. The 29-year-old Kronwall, who stands only 6-foot but packs a wallop onto that frame, has also become an offensive weapon. Last season he was one of three Wings to finish with 50-or-more points (51). This season he has picked up 13 points (5G-8A) in 24 games. He has played the past three games for the Wings after missing 30 with a knee injury.

Brad Stuart and Jonathan Ericsson are two defenders who played well against the Penguins in the Final last season but have struggled a bit here in 2009-10. Stuart has picked up just 10 points (2G-8A) in 54 games and has a minus-9 rating, which is a far cry from the combined plus-20 he has posted the past two postseasons. Ericsson, the Wings lone goal scorer in Game 7, is easily their biggest defender at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, but the 25-year-old does not use his size to his advantage – he has only 24 penalty minutes on the season. Ericsson is also a team-worst minus-11.
 
GOALTENDING
This has to feel like déjà vu for Detroit head coach Mike Babcock. His No. 1 netminder Chris Osgood, who has been a postseason hero the past two seasons, has once again ceded the top spot during the regular season. Last season it was former Penguin Ty Conklin stealing starts away, but this year it is home-grown Jimmy Howard.

Howard, 25, is a former second-round selection of the Wings in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. The former Maine Black Bear has seen spot duty with Detroit the past four seasons before earning his first full-time action this year. In 36 games he has posted a 19-11-5 record, 2.30 goals-against average and .925 save percentage, which ranks fifth in the league as of Saturday.

Osgood, a 16-year veteran in his second tour of duty with Detroit, is currently four wins from joining the 400-win club. The three-time Stanley Cup champion is the Red Wings all-time leader in postseason wins and shutouts. Osgood currently has a 7-8-2 record, 2.94 goals-against average and .891 save percentage. Those totals are actually better than the numbers Osgood posted in 46 regular-season games last season when he had a 3.09 goals-against average and .887 save percentage – both the lowest totals of his career.

Osgood has been phenomenal in the postseason the past two springs with a combined record of 29-12. He easily could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy during the 2008 postseason when he posted a 1.55 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 19 games.
 
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: NICKLAS LIDSTROM
It’s hard to believe anyone would ever doubt the future first-ballot Hall of Famer, but there were whispers at the beginning of the season that Nicklas Lidstrom might have finally lost a step or two. He began the season with only 11 points (1G-10A) and a plus-7 rating over his first 37 contests, but over the past 17 games he has picked up 19 points (5G-14A) and a plus-13 rating.

Whether he has or hasn’t lost a step, the fact is that Lidstrom remains one of the best two-way defensemen to ever lace up a pair of skates. He was elected to NHL.com’s All-Decade Team earlier this month after picking up six Norris Trophies, two Stanley Cups and one Conn Smyth Trophy over the past 10 years. Lidstrom is still seeing 25:28 minutes of ice time per game, the ninth-highest total in the league, and his plus-20 rating leads Detroit and ranks sixth among all defensemen.
 
"THEY SAID IT"
"I can play a lot better than I have the last two games. I have to keep moving forward, working hard. Don't give up. That's a motto for our team."

– Goaltender Chris Osgood talking to Yahoo! Sports about his disappointment in his performance over his past two starts.

 
POINT OF INTEREST
86: The Red Wings have scored 86 five-on-five goals this season, the fifth-lowest total in the NHL, just one season after notching 176 such tallies to lead the league. Conversely, the Penguins have scored 118 times five-on-five, second only to the Washington Capitals. 
  
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Author: Jason Seidling

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