DETROIT – Surely, even in their wildest dreams, the NHL’s power brokers could not have possibly believed just three years after a major facelift to the game the result would be a Stanley Cup final this appetizing.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings meet in Game 1 of the NHL’s championship series on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET), a matchup that mirrors the goal of the massive rule changes coming out of the lockout. The underlying sentiment at the time was to try and re-emphasize the importance of skill.
“This is one of those dream matchups for the league,” Penguins defenceman Ryan Whitney, a slick puck-mover, said Friday. “This is probably what they would have wanted when the playoffs started, for it to come down to this.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman probably can’t come out and admit that, for obvious reasons, but Whitney is dead right. The NHL is head over heels over this skill-on-skill set.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa versus Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom.
“For an absolute true hockey fan, this has to be a series you would really enjoy watching,” said Red Wings checker Kirk Maltby, whose job will be to try and stop Crosby and company. “And if you’re a person that’s maybe on the bubble about whether or not you enjoy hockey and you’re not sure you want to watch it, I think if you need a selling point this series could definitely have the potential.
“I have friends who are pretty excited to see how this series goes. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
U.S. television ratings, sagging for more than a decade, have been higher in these playoffs. The Cup final could really drive it home.
“This could be one of those series that really gets viewers that don’t usually watch hockey more involved,” said Whitney.
To top it all off, this is Crosby’s first Cup final, and there’s the kind of anticipation surrounding the young superstar’s first trip here much like when Wayne Gretzky first experienced it in 1983 and Mario Lemieux in 1991.
“Well, I think obviously Sidney Crosby is the face of the game, of our game in the United States,” said Red Wings GM Ken Holland. “So I mean right off the bat you’ve got the player that I think most people recognize. He’s on centre stage.”
The 20-year-old Penguins captain seems unfazed by it all. He didn’t blink when told of Holland’s comment.
“As far as the face of hockey, I don’t think I pressure myself to be that,” said the native of Cole Harbour, N.S. “I think 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.
“I think there’s a lot of great players in this league and guys who can bring excitement to the game right there.”
Crosby was a huge hockey fan growing up and even today he watches as many games as he can when he’s not playing. He’s got an acute sense of what’s going on around the league. So he, too, marvels at the chance the Penguins and Red Wings have to put on a show in this final.
“Yeah, it’s a pretty good group for sure,” said Crosby. “You look at both teams and what they bring. You can look at the NHL awards coming up (next month), you’ll see a lot of the same guys during the series at those. The two best teams in the playoffs are here.
“At the same time individually there’s a lot of players I think that are pretty exciting to watch. So it makes for a great series for sure.”
The two teams were 1-2 in goal scoring during the playoffs. But it’s also how they play.
“I think both teams play a high tempo, skilled game,” said Holland. “I think you’re going to see great plays. Puck possession is key with these teams.”
Holland recalled another series he’s been involved with where he felt the skill level was this high. And that’s saying something for a GM with three Stanley Cup rings.
“The greatest series I was ever involved in watching personally was the ’02 third-round series when we played Colorado and we beat them in seven games,” said Holland. “I remember when we had the puck, you felt like you were going to score a goal. When you didn’t have the puck, sitting in the press box, I was scared spitless when the Sakic’s and Forsberg’s had the puck.
“I anticipate it’s going to be the same type of series when one team has the puck, they’ll be attacking and there’s a possibility that a goal could be scored every shift. When the other team has the puck, you’ll be hanging on and you got to make sure you’re taking care of business.”
Datsyuk doesn’t speak a lot of English. But when asked about the skill level in the Stanley Cup final, the Russian star smiled.
“Games (should) be fun to watch,” he said. “Lots of skill.”
The way it should be.