May 23, 2008

2008 Stanley Cup Finals Preview

Stanley Cup final
(1) Detroit v. (2) Pittsburgh
2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs

We are on the verge of what promises to be the most compelling Stanley Cup finals in years.

The young, high scoring Penguins, the young upstarts, closing in on a Stanley Cup championship in only Sidney Crosby's third season. With a collection of stars like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury, Marian Hossa and Sergei Gonchar, they are quickly gaining comparisons to the Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers of the early 1980s.

Then there is the Detroit Red Wings, the model of NHL stability. They are experienced, steady, and making their fourth appearance in the Stanley Cup final in the past 11 years. They have an outstanding team defense, led by one of the all time greats in Niklas Lidstrom. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are perhaps the two best two-way forwards in the game today. Throw in crease crashers Tomas Holmstrom and, if he can shake concussion symptoms, Johan Franzen, and the experienced Red Wings are equal favorites.

That's right. I said co-favorites. I really believe that this promisingly-epic series will be a coin flip.

History suggests the Pens, like all great teams, need a set back to learn how to win the Stanley Cup. The Oilers did it. The great Islanders teams did it. Heck, these very Detroit Red Wings had several set backs. That makes me lean towards the Red Wings.

But the Pens have two dynamic superstars in Crosby and Malkin, and even Detroit's formidable defense will have trouble watching both lines plus the vaunted power play. Throw in the Pens' amazing offensive support cast, and you realize that this team was built for now. That makes me lean towards the Penguins.

Goaltending is equal too. I have to believe Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury is the more dynamic goalie, but savvy veteran Chris Osgood is good enough for Detroit to win. Critics like to pick on Osgood, but that's mostly because it is so hard to find any other faults in Detroit's roster. In my opinion, the inexperienced Fleury is probably more likely to falter than Osgood. Then again, he can raise his game higher than Osgood. No advantage.

Initial thoughts suggest Detroit's blue line has a good advantage over Pittsburgh, with Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart as the top 4. Pittsburgh's defense has been surprisingly airtight too, though, and both teams' forwards are completely committed to backchecking. On paper, most would give Detroit a minor advantage defensively, but statistically Pittsburgh has the craftier defense, 1.86 GAA vs. Detroit's 1.94. Both are tops in the 2008 playoffs.

Any perceived minor advantage Detroit has in it's own zone is eliminated by Pittsburgh's advantage on offense. The Pens are better here too, 3.64 goals for per game as compared to Detroit's 3.44, again with both numbers the best in the post-season. To make matters worse for Detroit, the Red Wings stumbled against Dallas without the secondary scoring of Franzen. And as good as Datsyuk and Zetterberg are, Crosby and Malkin are capable of taking their games to higher levels than anyone else in the series.

Special teams also suggest a small advantage for the Pens offense. Both teams are equal in penalty killing with a 87.3% rating, but with PP% at 24.6, Pittsburgh's PP is running 3.6% better than Detroit's.

All in all, I think Pittsburgh actually does have the slight advantage against the Red Wings, and that is attributable that Crosby, Malkin and Fleury are able to raise their games to higher levels than Detroit's stars.

Now we just have to see if they are capable of doing so in the pressure of the Stanley Cup finals while lacking the experience that Detroit possesses.

Since I have to make a prediction I'm going with Pittsburgh in 6. Why? Mostly because that's how my coin flip suggests.

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