A two-team race for the Cup

SAN JOSE, Calif. – To alleviate the suspense here, at least the majority of it, this little chase for Lord Stanley is going to one of the two teams on the Shark Tank ice Saturday night.

Nothing against the marvelous story unfolding in Boston, the glorious young talent in Washington, Chicago and Pittsburgh and the gritty efforts put forth in Calgary, Anaheim and Philadelphia, but the Stanley Cup will land in either San Jose or Detroit at postseason’s end.

It’s really that simple.

There are teams that do a lot of things well, and there are a lot of teams that are flat-out mediocre, a predictable consequence four years after the implementation of a salary-cap system. Hello, parity.

But there are only two teams with what it takes right now to win the Stanley Cup. That would be the defending Stanley Cup champions and the super-sized version of the Detroit Red Wings, otherwise known as the San Jose Sharks. You know that team, the one that took the Detroit blueprint along with its top assistant coach Todd McLellan but that still needs a psychiatrist’s couch every spring.

The two powers checked each other out on Saturday to see how each other is progressing toward a seemingly inevitable showdown in the late spring. This was the third matchup between the Sharks and Red Wings this season, but the first since in which the visitor wasn’t playing the second night of back-to-backs against a host that was rested.

Yes, there were issues coming in, more on the San Jose side. The Sharks were without regulars Rob Blake, Brad Lukowich and Jeremy Roenick, all three veterans nursing injuries. Torrey Mitchell also was absent, but the soon-to-be-recalled second-year speedster has missed the entire season rehabbing a training camp injury and hasn’t enjoyed one moment of the Sharks’ success to date.

No issues to speak of for the Wings, assuming no one is having a coronary over Chris Osgood’s subpar performance in the regular season. You get the feeling he still will raise his game before the real ones start, at least raise it enough for the Red Wings to resist pushing the panic button and trying to work a trade. Besides, Detroit has won Cups before with slightly better than average netminding.

So they went at it for 60 minutes – the Sharks trying to push around the Wings and the Wings showing the Sharks they still can deal with this kind of attention on a nightly basis because everywhere they play it’s someone else’s circled game on the calendar.

In the end, the Sharks were two breakaway goals better, one scored when Brad Stuart took a bad gamble and another when the linesman ignored an obvious offside. Or, the Wings were one extra-attacker goal short, as the Sharks held on by the hairs of their chinny chin chin for a 6-5 win.

What does it prove? Well, for one thing, it was more important for the Sharks to beat the Red Wings in this type of game than it was for Detroit to come out on top. San Jose is going to need every ounce of confidence and esteem to get past Detroit, even if it means suiting up Claude Lemieux for one seven-game series. And don’t put that past them.

The most impressive part of San Jose’s victory was the way the Sharks ignored the recent loss of Blake and didn’t change their personality to get the job done. Blake may be long in the tooth, but he, Dan Boyle and Lukowich have given the Sharks something they lacked in the past – a solid blend of youth and experience on the blue line with all the tools to win.

The Sharks have won all season by winning pucks in the corners with their size and speed, throwing it to the points and getting in position in front for rebounds off shots from blue liners led by Blake and Boyle. Basically, they’ve brought power-play mentality to even-strength play.

On Saturday, without Blake’s booming shot from the point, the Sharks changed it up a bit but found a similar result – 40-plus shots (41) and goals galore.

The other part that leads one to believe these Sharks no longer are the shrinking minnows of postseasons past is the way they shrugged off a pair of one-goal deficits late in the second period that would have proved killers in the past.

And without getting all pacific teal and black here, the fact remains the Detroit Red Wings are the measuring stick for all to be judged. They somehow managed to skate past the Stanley Cup hangover that has bitten every finalist since the end of the lockout. But that might have something to do with all that talent and professionalism in the organization.

The Wings are a proud team. They, too, were not about to wilt under the loss of two leads, the sight of two breakaways gone bad, a missed offside and a two-goal deficit on the road late. They came back with their usual fight to the finish, and they will have brushed off the effects of this loss long before the team charter completes its ascent out of Silicon Valley.

That’s what great teams do. And two of them played Saturday night. The two best in the NHL, whether we’re talking January or June.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Jan 18, 2009