Title waits for the Wings

Ross McKeon

Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to win a Stanley Cup. You can bet your bottom dollar on it. It's a lock, a sure thing, guaranteed.

But it just isn't going to happen this year. Not against this group of Detroit Red Wings. So with all due respect to the Penguins, and the late, great Herb Brooks, this is not your time.

Now before you hit the reply button and fire off that nasty email I've just inspired, hear me out. No, I don't hate the Penguins. I don't love the Red Wings. I'm not a fan of any one team in the NHL, nor do I have any rooting interest unless it comes to overtimes.

Those can be full of suspense and great to watch, but are pretty annoying in the playoffs when you're bumping up against deadlines. But I digress.

You're going to read elsewhere how this is such a great matchup between two hockey powers – Detroit's depth and experience against Pittsburgh's offensive prowess, led by two of the greatest young players in the world (Evgeni Malkin and Crosby) – blah, blah, blah. And while the NHL, Versus and NBC would love for all that to come to fruition, it's more fiction than fact.

There are three main reasons why Detroit has it over Pittsburgh: experience, special teams and goaltending. Here's a look at each category in depth.

Experience: The Red Wings have two players who already own one Stanley Cup ring (Pavel Datsyuk, Dominik Hasek), three who have won two (Chris Chelios, Chris Osgood and Brian Rafalski) and five who have three each (Kris Draper, Tomas Holmstrom, Nicklas Lidstrom, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty). All except Rafalski won at least one championship in a Detroit sweater.

In addition, coach Mike Babcock is very familiar with the Stanley Cup grind – he took Anaheim to Game 7 of the finals in 2003 in addition to guiding teams to at least the conference finals in three of his five years as an NHL coach. That's impressive.

The Penguins have three players with rings – Darryl Sydor (2), Gary Roberts and Petr Sykora – but none won with Pittsburgh. Sydor won with Dallas in 1999 and Tampa Bay in 2004. Sykora won his in 2000 with New Jersey and you have to go back to 1989 for Roberts' ring in Calgary.

Sykora might be the only of the three skaters who will appear in these finals. Roberts has been limited to only six games. The 41-year-old has missed eight games due to leg and groin injuries, and now he's suffering from pneumonia, leaving his availability in question. The 36-year-old Sydor appeared in all but eight of Pittsburgh's 82 games in the regular season, but has yet to suit up for any of the Penguins' 14 in the playoffs.

This is not a knock on Pittsburgh's roster, which is obviously dominated by young talent. But experience is definitely going to play a role throughout many facets of the finals.

Two factors I see especially telling will be Babcock's ability to have his team ready for fast starts despite the added pomp and circumstance that will lead to delayed opening faceoffs for each game. And Henrik Zetterberg, Kris Draper, Pavel Datsyuk and Valtteri Filppula will enjoy an edge against Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin and Max Talbot in the faceoff circle, which will lead to Detroit possessing the puck more often than Pittsburgh.

Special teams: There's no questioning Pittsburgh's potent power play, but Detroit has just the kind of personnel and strategy to thwart what the Penguins feel is their best chance to win.

The Red Wings' aggressive approach to the penalty kill has frustrated one opponent after another in recent postseasons. Dallas was just 3-for-30 on the power play against the Red Wings after dominating Anaheim and putting the hurt on San Jose in the opening two rounds. The fact the Wings shut the Stars down wasn't a fluke.

Unlike most teams, Detroit sends one of its four penalty-killing forwards deep into the offensive zone, which often surprises opponents who are more used to seeing a penalty-killing unit retreat and not work hard to defend until the power play reaches the blue line. Babcock has the right thinking here – make the attacking team earn every inch of the 200 feet.

The result is often a rushed pass, a poor decision, lost time on the power play to get organized or, ultimately and ideally for the Wings, a turnover and a short-handed chance.

On the power play, Detroit's top-end skill really shines. In addition, the Wings usually increase the pace of their game when on the power play instead of slowing down, a common mistake made by many teams. Everyone knows Holmstrom is going to look to park himself in front of Marc-Andre Fleury, and it will be up to Pittsburgh's penalty-killing defenseman to walk the fine line of pushing Holmstrom aside while maintaining defensive posture and not taking another penalty.

Whether it's Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Rafalski, Holmstrom or even a Mikael Samuelsson, Jiri Hudler or a healthy Johan Franzen, someone is going to get you.

Goaltending: Ultimately, a Stanley Cup comes down to goaltending. And while no one questions the fine play of the 23-year-old Fleury, Osgood is the player who has been in this position before, knows what pressure he's going to face and how to respond to adversity.

Look for the Red Wings to attack Fleury in ways he has not seen to date. Look for Detroit to crowd the crease, to screen, to poke and to hover. The Wings aren't going to make anything easy for Fleury, and they're going to test his patience.

Fleury can get a little busy in his goal. He's athletically gifted, but he's going to need to remain patient and fundamentally sound against the Wings. That is going to be the challenge. He's also going to have to reign in his puck-handling adventures. He had a few in the earlier rounds, none that cost him, but he's no Marty Turco.

Osgood has been efficient and a calming influence on his teammates since stepping into the starter's role in relief of an erratic Hasek midway through the Round 1 win over Nashville. Osgood hasn't been spectacular, but he hasn't had to be. He's going to face better shooters in this series – Marian Hossa and Malkin for starters – but that shouldn't faze him.

Osgood has come a long way since being considered a weak link on an otherwise juggernaut champion in '98. He's a fan favorite and a popular figure in the locker room.

Add it all up and you have an 11th Stanley Cup for the Detroit Red Wings, who will get the job done in five games.