Whenever one claims that a certain team is "a better story" than another team, there's always some outcry of conspiratorial bias from the disrespected.
So know this: The Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Stanley Cup would be, as a non-partisan puckhead, more satisfying and gratifying than seeing the Detroit Red Wings continue their run of dominance. Their journey back to the finals has been more compelling. The story arcs for several of their players have been more interesting. Their redemption in this rematch -- against the Wings, against Marian Hossa(notes), against their detractors -- would complete a gripping sports narrative that began with a dying hand reaching from the grave to grab a slot machine arm and ends with Sidney Crosby's(notes) two hands clutching his first Stanley Cup.
It's a great story. But the Red Wings aren't about to help provide a fulfilling conclusion. Detroit's going to win its second consecutive Stanley Cup, and the guess is that it'll be in seven games. Here's why ...
The Red Wings are a lot of things, but one of them isn't complacent. There's a drive here to win another championship that isn't simply a matter of function or entitlement; there's a hunger there.
Mike Babcock is a sports psychologist, and the Wings are an interesting case study. They showed an assassin's efficiency in dispatching the Columbus Blue Jackets. They were roughed up against the Anaheim Ducks, but showed a determination born of indignation after the Mike Brown incident and Marian Hossa getting jobbed out of a goal. The win over the Chicago Blackhawks was equal parts of both: efficient and determined, as the Red Wings steadfastly refused to pass the torch to their division rivals.
That's one reason Detroit's my pick. I think they enter this series banged up and pissed off; sounding off about the NHL's inequitable condensing of the finals break, for example. They're self-motivators, and they always have been.
Are they a lock? Not at all.
As Leahy pointed out, the biggest difference between last final and this rematch is Evgeni Malkin(notes), whose Conn Smythe pace powered the Penguins in the latter part of their conference run and whose presence could challenge the Red Wings' defensive depth. There's no bigger X-factor on either side.
We've lauded Crosby throughout the postseason, and he enters the finals having scored in all but two postseason games this year. He's already elevated his game to hockey diety levels during the showdown with Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, and it's not out of the question he'll find another gear here.
The Penguins have gotten solid contributions from a resurrected Miro Satan, veteran Bill Guerin(notes), the checking line of Kennedy/Staal/Cooke and from Ruslan Fedotenko(notes), who has one fewer goal (6) in the postseason than he had in all of 2009 (7). Defensemen like Rob Scuderi(notes), Hal Gill(notes) and Mark Eaton(notes) make you believe the Wings forwards aren't going to set up lawn darts in front of the crease.
So there's a lot to like about Pittsburgh. But there's also a little to be weary about.
Detroit (52.8) is better on faceoffs than Pittsburgh (50.0). although the health of Pavel Datsyuk(notes) and Kris Draper(notes) is a factor. The Wings (25.7) are better on the power play than the Penguins (19.3), and while their PK has consistently yielded goals at a 73.7-percent kill rate (Pittsburgh is at 83.6), they've come up big when they've needed to, like in Game 5 against Chicago.
But it's between the pipes where I'm most weary. I defended Marc-Andre Fleury's(notes) effort last postseason, because he was knocked around unfairly after that "Scoring With His Ass" goal in the elimination game. It's like judging Chris Osgood(notes) for the Jamie Baker giveaway in 1994; 15 years later, some are ready to place him in the Hall of Fame based on his postseason exploits.
And Fleury's been solid in these playoffs, too; downright brilliant at times. But I just don't like the matchup, with Detroit's big bodies taking him out of a comfort zone and Detroit's speedy forwards potentially making him play the puck more than he ought to play it. The Penguins' defense needs to keep the pressure off of Fleury, and that's not an easy task with the Red Wings. This isn't to say that Fleury's going to lose the series for Pittsburgh. But I can't see him winning it against this team.
Handicapping this series is a bit of head vs. heart, logic against emotion. Having followed the Penguins through three rounds, there is a sense of inevitability that they're building to something spectacular.
But logically, the Detroit Red Wings remain their toughest challenge, their most difficult draw and the best team in the NHL. It may take seven games, but they'll win this series. And then we can all concentrate on Marian Hossa in the handshake line.