We're facing the inevitable Penguins-Red Wings II for the Stanley Cup Finals – and yes, the fighting spirit has been broken in both Carolina and Chicago. Is this a good thing for the NHL?
No doubt, Sidney Crosby(notes), Evgeni Malkin(notes) and all of Pittsburgh's young stars taking center stage in the league's showcase event last spring was a very good thing. As much as the baby Pens had been hyped for the previous two to three seasons, their skills still needed to be displayed at the most important time of the season.
That happened, and while the Penguins lost to the classy Red Wings, there was no reason to feel shame in the Steel City. Those young stars shined bright and left the impression they would be heard from again.
For Detroit, it was the right thing happening to the right team. The Red Wings were the best over 82 games, and they were the best among a ferocious Western Conference. And when they beat the Penguins last season, even if it took one game longer than it should have, general manager Ken Holland was rewarded for what he had put together.
That was last year. Now, is it a good thing the same two teams meet again this season?
This is not to suggest the Finals are going to be a dud, quite opposite in fact. If the Red Wings are banged up against the Penguins – missing the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), Pavel Datsyuk(notes) and Kris Draper(notes) as was the case in Sunday's Game 4 at Chicago – maybe the ice tilts in Pittsburgh's favor. Maybe there will be more suspense in the matchup. Maybe there will not be a repeat winner for the first time since Detroit in 1997 and '98.
But that's not the point.
Despite the fact the teams split against each other during the regular season, and despite the motivation Pittsburgh would have to avenge last spring's outcome, it's still a feeling of been there, done that.
And the way things are going – Detroit and Pittsburgh headed for quick series' wins against Chicago and Carolina, respectively – everyone is going to have to wait through nine, count 'em, nine days of Game 1 buildup if both conference finals conclude Wednesday night.
This ain't no Super Bowl.
Whatever hype television networks and the league contrive will be diluted by the long wait. And even if the wait is shorter, the NHL is going to get buried with all the Kobe-LeBron talk and that other league that casts too long of a shadow over the frozen pond.
Once we get to the Pittsburgh-Detroit matchup, it's not even as close as last year's, which wasn't as close as a six-game series might suggest.
The Red Wings are just that much better. And nothing illustrates that point more than removing one of the Penguins' top supporting players – veteran scorer Marian Hossa(notes) – and adding him to the Detroit roster. How unfair is that?
But it goes much deeper.
On defense, the Wings have finally figured a way to get Jonathan Ericsson(notes) into the top six and limit minutes for Chris Chelios(notes) and Andreas Lilja(notes). Yes, Lilja is injured, but Ericsson is a better option than Lilja or Chelios, even if it has taken longer than it should for this alignment to become a reality.
Detroit's forwards are better than a year ago, too. No one is surprised anymore when Johan Franzen(notes), Daniel Cleary(notes) or Valtteri Filppula(notes) contributes offensively. Darren Helm(notes) and Ville Leino(notes) add speed and skill that a Draper or Darren McCarty(notes) never had. Sure, we know all about the importance of the Drapers and McCartys, but there's enough toughness throughout the lineup to make up for a couple of stalwarts.
Chris Osgood(notes) deserves better in terms of what is written and said about him. But even if he's not regarded as an elite goaltender, he is trusted by his teammates, and that goes a long way this time of the year. He also never seems to face a barrage that could affect a goalie's psyche. The Red Wings just don't let that happen.
Then there are the Pens. Crosby and Malkin are eating the Eastern Conference alive again. But neither has faced an opponent that can bring it physically. Guess what? That's what Detroit can do, even though few talk about the Red Wings in that respect. And when we say bring it physically, it's not so much as the highlight-reel hits as how hard Detroit makes it to win pucks, keep possession and gain the important areas of ice.
The Penguins don't have Ryan Whitney(notes), Ryan Malone(notes), Gary Roberts(notes), Jarkko Ruutu(notes), Daryl Sydor, Petr Sykora(notes), Adam Hall(notes) and Hossa. In their place are Bill Guerin(notes), Chris Kunitz(notes), Ruslan Fedotenko(notes), Matt Cooke(notes), Miroslav Satan(notes), Craig Adams(notes), Kris Letang(notes) and Mark Eaton(notes).
It can be argued which supporting cast is better, last year's or this. It can't be argued that there's something to say about stability and familiarity, especially when it's a proven winner. And while all that works in Detroit's favor, more of the same isn't a good thing for the NHL.