Wings, Pens poised for rematch
Want to add intrigue to the conference finals? How about moving Games 3 and 4 of the Detroit-Chicago series outdoors? The Cubs are conveniently out of town next Friday and Sunday. We hear erecting a rink on the floor of Wrigley Field works pretty well.
Our suggestions are merely in jest; these two series leading to the Stanley Cup Finals already are full of mystery and intrigue. And they don’t need any added bells and whistles to drum up attention.
For the hockey purist yearning for the revival of rivalries gone dormant, we present the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks – two Original Six franchises that have a history of not liking each other. That true disdain mostly disappeared over the better part of the last two decades when Detroit was going one way – achieving at least the conference finals in eight of the last 14 postseasons – while Chicago was failing even to make the playoffs for nine of the last 10 springs before this season.
In the East, many may be disappointed about the absence of a Boston-Pittsburgh showdown – a meeting of the best team during the regular season against the defending conference champs. But the fact is we’re getting the two hottest teams down the stretch – the resurgent Pittsburgh Penguins under replacement coach Dan Bylsma against the Carolina Hurricanes, who also underwent a change behind the bench during the year (Peter Laviolette replaced by Paul Maurice).
A deeper look at the two series follows:
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs Detroit beat Chicago in five games during the 1995 West finals. Three Red Wings wins came in overtime. It was the 15th playoff meeting between Detroit and Chicago. Much has changed since.
The Red Wings lost the Stanley Cup to the Devils in 1995, a postseason that followed a lockout-shortened regular season. But it signaled the start of Detroit’s postseason domination. The Wings have won four Cups since, including the franchise’s 11th overall last spring.
Detroit is the big kid on the block; Chicago simply is a team full of kids. But that doesn’t mean this will be a one-sided series. The Blackhawks, led by the likes of youngsters Jonathan Toews(notes) and Patrick Kane(notes), may have arrived much quicker than many anticipated, but they sure don’t act like they’re out of place.
The Blackhawks have been the most resilient team in the postseason. They trailed in each of their four victories against Vancouver in the second round and scored 14 of their 23 goals in the third period or overtime. The Blackhawks trailed in the first two games of their first-round series and rallied to win each during a six-game conquest of Calgary.
Chicago doesn’t have to cross any international borders for the first time; it just finds itself in a border war with Detroit. The Red Wings staved off elimination with a Game 7 victory against Anaheim on Thursday, scoring the series-deciding goal late in regulation against the battle-tested Ducks.
Not that the regular-season matchups have much bearing, but the Blackhawks like how things ended a lot better than how they started. Detroit won each of the first four meetings, capped by a 6-4 victory on New Year’s Day at Wrigley. Chicago won both ends of a home-and-home set during the final weekend of the regular season.
It’s definitely Chicago’s youth vs. Detroit’s experience. The Blackhawks not only feature Toews and Kane but also boast other young standouts including Duncan Keith(notes), Brent Seabrook(notes), Dustin Byfuglien(notes), Cam Barker(notes), Dave Bolland(notes), Troy Brouwer(notes) and Adam Burish(notes). Chicago is the only team in the league to improve on its record each of the past four seasons, and don’t forget the Blackhawks were outstanding on the road (22-15-4 away from the spirited and overflowing United Center).
Detroit will be looking to its usual cast of playoff-tested vets including Pavel Datsyuk(notes), Henrik Zetterberg(notes), Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), Tomas Holmstrom(notes), Johan Franzen(notes), Brian Rafalski(notes) and Chris Osgood(notes). But this Red Wings team is even deeper than last year’s champs with the addition of Marian Hossa(notes) and the emergence of youngsters such as Jonathan Ericsson(notes) and Darren Helm(notes).
Look for Chicago to try playing physically against Detroit, knowing the Red Wings are coming off a very rugged and trying series against the Ducks. The Blackhawks could be catching the Red Wings at just the right time, but it says here Detroit still will emerge in six games.
Whereas Detroit and Chicago have an extensive playoff history against each other, this marks the first postseason meeting between the Carolina and Pittsburgh franchises, even dating back when the Hurricanes were the Hartford Whalers.
Then again, consider this unique situation: Brothers Eric and Jordan Staal(notes) will oppose each other and may see a lot of ice at the same time. Eric Staal(notes) is Carolina’s top-line center, and Jordan Staal is Pittsburgh’s top checking center. And there’s this: Carolina associate coach Ron Francis is one of the most beloved figures for both franchises – Carolina’s all-time leader in goals, assists and points while also being a key member of Pittsburgh’s great teams for eight seasons, including the Cup champs in 1991 and ’92.
As for the in-season coaching changes, the Hurricanes went 33-19-5 after Maurice began his second tour of duty behind the Carolina bench and the Pens went 18-3-4 under Bylsma, who replaced Michel Therrien. Both teams gained a boost from deadline deals as the Hurricanes reacquired the popular Erik Cole(notes) and Pittsburgh filled needs with the gritty Chris Kunitz(notes) and veteran scorer Bill Guerin(notes).
Carolina may have nine lives. The Hurricanes have won two Game 7s on the road thus far. In New Jersey, the ‘Canes trailed very late but scored twice within 1:20 to shock the Devils. Carolina scored late in overtime of Game 7 in Boston on Thursday after allowing the host Bruins to tie the game in the third period.
Special teams will be interesting since it matches Pittsburgh’s strength on the power play (19.7 percent success) against Carolina’s stout penalty kill (just five goals allowed in 54 short-handed situations).
The goaltending duel features two of the better young netminders in the league, two players who often are overlooked on their teams. Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury(notes), 24, is proving his 1.97 goals-against average in last year’s run to Game 6 of the Finals was no fluke. While the Penguins rolled to a 6-2 victory in Game 7 at Washington on Wednesday, it was Fleury who provided the game-turning play by robbing Alexander Ovechkin(notes) on a breakaway attempt when the game was scoreless early.
You’ll hear this plenty, too, Carolina’s Cam Ward(notes), 25, has yet to lose a Stanley Cup playoff series. It was during his rookie season that Ward stepped in for Martin Gerber(notes) after the Hurricanes fell into an 0-2 hole at home against Montreal in the opening round, and he rallied his team not only to a series win over the Canadiens but also to a first Stanley Cup. Ward was rewarded with the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP as Carolina beat Edmonton in seven games in 2006.
Despite all the good vibes the Hurricanes feel, it’s hard to pick against a roster than includes Sidney Crosby(notes), Evgeni Malkin(notes), Sergei Gonchar(notes) and Fleury. Pittsburgh will take this one in a tidy five games.