DETROIT (AP)—Sid the Kid is set to take on Hockeytown.
With all due respect to the NHL’s other 28 teams, no other Stanley Cup finals matchup could sizzle quite like this one.
Sidney Crosby has lived up to the hype, and in his third NHL season has the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992— when Mario Lemieux took the black and gold to the title.
To earn their third championship, the Penguins will have to overcome Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom and the rest of the Red Wings. It all starts Saturday night in Joe Louis Arena, where fan-tossed octopi will smack the ice as they have for decades of playoff hockey in Detroit.
If a matchup ever was going to capture the attention of the casual sports fan and make the NHL matter during its showcase event, this seems to be the one to do it.
“It remains to be seen. I can’t say I hope this series goes long,” 46-year-old Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios said Friday. “On paper it’s so even—the stats, the matchups. You look at the rosters and there are stars and skill.
“I couldn’t think of a better matchup, and I think everybody is happy that this is the way it ended up turning out.”
The Red Wings are making their first appearance in the finals since winning the championship in 2002 over Carolina in the last title series played entirely in the Eastern time zone. Detroit is the last team to repeat as champion, doing it in 1997 and 1998—six years after Pittsburgh pulled off the feat.
Crosby already has a scoring title and MVP award on his mantle. Now, he is four wins from a championship.
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland called him “the face of the game” moments before Crosby took the podium in Detroit for the first time since the Penguins arrived.
“I don’t think I pressure myself to be that,” the 20-year-old center said. “I’ve always tried to be a good professional and tried to be a good role model, but I don’t think I let that hang on myself. There’s a lot of great players in this league and guys who can bring excitement to the game.”
“The skill level is going to be very high,” Lidstrom said. “That’s one of the reasons a lot of people wanted this kind of matchup. People were talking about it in the media before we got here. A lot of people wanted to see two highly skilled teams, two offensive teams, two puck possession teams in the finals.”
Now the question remains if fans will watch. Judging from the conference finals, they just might.
The Motown buzz is that the Red Wings’ television ratings in Detroit might top those of the NBA’s Pistons, who will be playing Boston in the Eastern Conference finals at home on Saturday and Monday—at the same time as the Cup contests.
Versus, which will televise the first two games of the Cup finals in the U.S. before NBC takes over, earned its best rating in the network’s history for Game 2 of the East finals between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. That was also the highest-rated and most-watched NHL cable telecast (playoff or regular season) since the 2002-03 season.
Adding in the Red Wings could boost the numbers that much more.
“I really hope so,” Penguins forward Marian Hossa said. “What else would you like? You get superstars on one or the other side. It’s just excellent for hockey. I know lots of people are happy because it’s going to be one of the best finals in a long time.”
Compared to last year, ratings in the conference finals were up 71 percent.
“I don’t think as a player you can worry about that a whole lot,” Crosby said. “I mean you do your best to help your team win, and I think that’s where most guys’ focus is. You can’t control the other stuff. If that’s the case, then great. That’s great for the game and great for everyone involved.”
The Red Wings earned their league-record sixth Presidents’ Trophy this season by compiling an NHL-best 115 points. The Penguins weren’t too far behind, finishing second in the Eastern Conference with 102.
“I cannot recall more stars in a final since 1987, when Edmonton had five of the best, but they were all on one team,” NBC play-by-play announcer Mike Emrick said. “This time we have the stars divided out on teams.
“The hockey gods are smiling so wide, we can count their missing teeth.”
Malkin was second in the league with 106 points, and Datsyuk and Zetterberg cracked the top six in scoring with 97 and 92 points, respectively.
Crosby had a 72-point campaign that was limited to 53 games due to the Penguins captain’s severe ankle injury in midseason.
“It’s a pretty good group for sure,” Crosby said. “You can look at the NHL awards and things like that that are going to come up, you’ll see a lot of the same guys during this series at those. The two best teams in the playoffs are there. There’s a lot of players that are pretty exciting to watch, so it makes for a great series.”
Franzen practiced with teammates for more than an hour Friday, but has yet to be cleared by doctors for game action following concussion-like symptoms that began in the second round against Colorado and forced him to miss the final five games of the West finals against Dallas.
Roberts, who turned 42 on Friday, said he has recovered from leg injuries and a bout with pneumonia, but was told that coach Michel Therrien will keep him out of the Penguins lineup.