PITTSBURGH – There are always subplots to every game, but when the Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins face off tonight at Consol Energy Center fans can expect to be entertained by four of the world’s greatest players.
Detroit and Pittsburgh, who enter Wednesday’s game in third- and fifth-place, respectively, in the Eastern Conference standings, are meeting for just the 10th time since the Penguins defeated the Wings in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in 2009.
It was that classic seven-game battle – and the previous Cup finals in ’08 won by the Wings in six games – that spawned a heated rivalry, which still exists today between the chief characters – Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who are in the prime of their careers, and Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who continue to drive the success in Hockeytown.
“When you play a team in the Cup finals like that obviously you bring out some stuff that normally is probably not there in the regular season,” Zetterberg said. “Sid and Malkin are among the best players in the world. It’s fun to play against them.”
Like Zetterberg, the Penguins’ captain said he looks forward to such individual battles on the ice.
“There’s always those matchups within the game and obviously with that group we’re all pretty familiar with each other,” said Crosby, who is fourth in league scoring with 56 points. “We’ve played so much. Just be ready to compete and both me and Gino want to help our team and they want to do the same. I don’t think you try to change too much.”
Zetterberg’s line with Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader will see plenty of the Crisby line with Chris Kunitz and newly acquired David Perron. Meanwhile, Datsyuk and his linemates Tomas Tatar and Darren Helm will by challenged by Malkin and forwards Blake Comeau and Patric Hornqvist.
In his first season with the Penguins, Hornqvist is no stranger to the Red Wings and knows what to expect tonight.
“They’re really good in the neutral zone,” said Hornqvist, who spent his first six seasons with Nashville. “If you turn the puck over it’s going to be dangerous for sure. So we need to be strong on the puck in the neutral zone and get their D turned every single time they’re on the ice and be hard on them.”
There’s definitely a mutual respect among these teams that could meet in the playoffs this spring.
“This is a team we have to beat in the playoffs to go all the way,” Hornqvist said. “They have a good team and we have a good team so it’s a big matchup. That’s the game we’re looking forward to. We can’t wait.”
Wings defenseman Brendan Smith agreed, saying the elite competitiveness exhibited on a nightly basis by Crosby, Datsyuk, Malkin and Zetterberg definitely rubs off on their teammates, but even more so – if that’s humanly possible – when the two teams meet.
“You’re able to be on the ice with the best players in the world, so right there it lifts your emotions, you’re ready, you’re prepared,” Smith said. “Every young guy who wants to get better and be more recognized for what they bring to the table, when you play against these players and you play well. It shows that you’re up at that level and you can compete against them. In that aspect it’s fun to play against guys like Sidney Crosby, Malkin, and so on, because you get to play against the best players in the world.
“At the same time it’s very difficult because they do things that people have never seen. They’re so good, they’re innovators, they make new moves all over the place and they make highlight reels and now they’re in the new video games, and that stuff is pretty cool. Just to share the ice and be a part of it, and try to match your skill against them is a lot of fun.”
The last three meetings between Detroit and Pittsburgh as resulted in one-goal games that needed to be settled in overtime or the shootout, including the first game this season, which Detroit won, 4-3 in overtime at Joe Louis Arena on Oct. 23.
Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey said he expects a similarly close outcome, and sees the match as a measuring stick for the final 30 regular-season games.
“The first game we played was unbelievable game for the fans to watch,” he said. “Just being a part of it was fun. For me I don’t like being in those games as a defenseman. I like to get up early and tighten it down and win 2-1. As a D-man, they have two of the best forwards in the world so it’s a huge test for us. It’s fun to see where we are. We’re doing really good. This is a huge test for us to see how good we really are.”
Two more subplots include winning streaks by the Wings and Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Detroit has won three straight, out-scoring their opponents, 10-2, in that stretch, while Fleury enters the game with back-to-back shutout wins at Edmonton and Calgary.
Still, the subplot that will hold the interest of most fans tonight is that of the teams’ top centermen.
“I know Hank and Crosby had their battles through the playoffs a few years ago,” Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson said. “They’re both good players and I think they like the way the games between them are. They’re tight between them and they get a little frustrated at each other, but I think both guys enjoy it, but they both want to come out on top.”