PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins will travel Friday to the city called Hockeytown for their second Stanley Cup finals in as many seasons against Detroit, yet forgive them if they’re convinced they already live there.
Their games are drawing NFL playoff-like ratings in the Pittsburgh market – a 27.1 on little-watched cable channel Versus for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Carolina, or 5 1/2 times the ratings in Raleigh.
While there were empty seats in recession-ravaged Detroit for Red Wings home games, the last 115 Penguins home games in the NHL’s oldest arena were sellouts. Giant banners bearing the pictures of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin hang from the girders of the new arena being built across the street from Mellon Arena.
Yes, the Penguins appear to have everything going for them – momentum from a conference finals sweep, two of the league’s best players in high gear and the kind of fervent support that franchises in some higher-profile sports wish they had.
There’s only one thing missing: a Stanley Cup, at least one of more recent vintage than those won by the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins of 1991 and 1992.
The Red Wings have raised the cup four times since then, and the NHL’s most polished and reliable group of winners gave the Penguins an instructional lesson in what it takes to be a champion last spring. The Penguins had lost only two games in three playoff rounds before being dominated during 4-0 and 3-0 losses that opened the finals in Detroit, and they never recovered before losing in six games.
“It was kind of a shell shock,” defenceman Rob Scuderi said Thursday.
“We were watching too much. We were waiting to see what it was going to be like and, by that time, it was too late,” Crosby said.
The Penguins remember how frustrating it felt to realize they weren’t quite good enough, and they’re convinced the experience of losing in the finals was the best possible preparation for winning it this time.
“We have that confidence in the dressing room that we’ve been through it, and it’s a great feeling,” forward Max Talbot said. “I think we’ll be ready for them.”
Pittsburgh appears to own several important advantages over the beaten-up Red Wings. The Penguins are relatively healthy, Malkin and Crosby are rolling with a league-leading 28 points apiece and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said “the emotion and the stress, all the stuff we didn’t know” last year are missing.
The Red Wings were missing stars Nicklas Lidstrom (2 games) and Pavel Datsyuk (3 games) for part of the Western Conference finals against Chicago, though they’re hoping both will return for Game 1 on Saturday.
Even if they don’t, the Red Wings are the Red Wings, and the Penguins knew from the moment they lost to them a year ago they’d probably have to beat Detroit to prove they indeed are the best.
“Watching their Game 4 against Chicago where they won 6-1, I don’t know if we want to say we were laughing at the situation, but it was something we went through last year,” defenceman Brooks Orpik said. “You can try to run them out of the building, be physical on them, but they’re skilled guys … and tough. They just play the game.”
The question is whether the Red Wings are playing it at the same level they were last year. They’ve added Marian Hossa, who defected from Pittsburgh after last season, but injuries are cutting into their skill and depth (Kris Draper, Andreas Lilja).
And in Detroit, the Red Wings are wondering if controlling Rick Nash of Columbus and Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews was adequate preparation for trying to slow Malkin and Crosby. Malkin had six goals and three assists in four games against Carolina; Crosby has a league-high 14 goals.
“Crosby and Malkin are running away with the scoring lead in the playoffs and if we let them continue to run wild, it will be hard for us to win the series,” Detroit general manager Ken Holland said. “You can’t stop players that good, but we can’t let them do what they did against Carolina.”
The Penguins believe they’ve already benefited from losing to Detroit last year, saying it helped them rally from a 2-0 deficit against Alex Ovechkin-led Washington during the conference semifinals.
“I thought no one panicked, in part because of the experience we had last year,” Scuderi said.
Now, after a full off-season and regular season, six weeks of playoffs, the NHL is right back where it was last year: Pittsburgh vs. Detroit for the Stanley Cup, with Sid the Kid again going for his first championship and the oh-so-successful Red Wings trying for yet another one.
“Certainly two of the marquee franchises going toe to toe again in the finals, it’s something we all can appreciate even when we’re in the midst of it,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.