The veteran Detroit Red Wings took down the young Pittsburgh Penguins two years ago in the Stanley Cup finals, but when Pittsburgh got revenge with a thrilling seven-game triumph last spring, a third meeting seemed like a distinct possibility.
Right now, Detroit finding its way into the postseason is anything but guaranteed.
Injuries and inconsistency have left the Red Wings fighting just to extend their streak of 18 straight playoff appearances, and earning two points Sunday afternoon could be critical as they visit the Penguins for the first time since their latest finals showdown.
Detroit (26-19-9) took out Pittsburgh in six games to win its 11th Stanley Cup, but the Penguins claimed their third June 12 at Joe Louis Arena after Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) stopped a last-second Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) shot to preserve a 2-1 victory.
The core of each team remained intact, though both have battled rough patches in 2009-10. But while Pittsburgh (33-21-1) is actually 10 points ahead of its pace through 55 games last season, the Red Wings can attribute losing 258 man-games as a major factor in being 18 points behind their 36-11-7 mark through 54 games in 2008-09.
Their 18-season streak of playoff appearances is the longest in North American professional sports.
“Injuries are a big (factor),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby(notes) said. “It shows the strength of the league for sure, but at the same time some of those teams run into bad luck. (Detroit) is a perfect example. … There isn’t much room to slip up.”
That tied the Red Wings with Nashville for the seventh spot in the Western Conference, but five teams within five points are lurking close behind.
“I do think it was huge, especially playing a team in our division that was two points ahead of us for the last spot in the race,” Lidstrom said. “We know we have to play with a sense of urgency.”
Pittsburgh didn’t make its surge last season until it replaced coach Michel Therrien with Dan Bylsma, and though it’s been streaky for much of this season, it’s scored 40 goals and allowed 40 in going 7-5-0 in its last 12 games.
The Penguins didn’t provide much resistance Thursday against Ottawa, losing 4-1 as the Senators picked up their eighth win in a row.
“We didn’t execute enough, and I don’t think we were really too tough to play against,” Crosby said.
While Crosby needs just seven goals to surpass his career high of 39, Evgeni Malkin’s(notes) inconsistent play has often plagued the Penguins. But Malkin, who had two goals and six assists in the finals and was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, has six goals and five assists in his last six games.
Lidstrom has been Detroit’s biggest producer recently, totaling five goals and seven assists in his last nine games, while Pavel Datsyuk(notes) and Henrik Zetterberg(notes) have combined for four goals and six assists in their last three.
Howard is 4-2-2 with a 1.95 goals-against average in his last eight road starts, while Fleury is 1-3-0 with a 4.42 GAA in his last five games at Mellon Arena.