PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins made them earn it by pushing it to six games but truth be told, the Detroit Red Wings were the dominant team for long stretches in the Stanley Cup final.
Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury were terrific in their first Stanley Cup final, Marian Hossa dazzled at times, Brooks Orpik pounded the Wings and Maxime Talbot was all heart, but they didn’t have nearly enough support from their Penguins teammates to make this a more compelling series.
So for the second June in a row, West is clearly best in the NHL. Score it West 8, East 3 in the Cup final win column over the last two years following Anaheim’s five-game win over Ottawa last season.
This was a series that was hyped to no end before the puck was dropped. And while it didn’t look good early on, the final did produce some thrilling hockey in Games 3, 4 and 5. Pittsburgh’s dramatic win in triple overtime Monday night made this a series to remember.
But there was hardly ever any doubt during this series which was the better team. The Penguins needed to touch the puck a little more often to have a chance to win the final. Like the bullies in the school yard playing keep away with the ball, the Wings refused to let the babyface Penguins into the game by controlling the puck the majority of the time.
It’s scary how well they’ve perfected that puck possession style of game. It starts at the back end where a blue-line featuring Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Brian Rafalski and five-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom quarterback a transition game with pinpoint outlet passes.
Then you’ve got a swarming group of forwards, led by Selke Trophy finalists Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who take away passing lanes and intercept passes like nobody in the league when teams try to skate through the neutral zone with the puck. So when the Penguins tried to alter the game plan and play dump and chase, Lidstrom and company simply beat them to the puck and quickly turned it the other way.
And just like that, the Wings were constantly on the attack, constantly in possession of the puck. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can’t hurt you too much if they can’t touch the rubber disc.
Zetterberg was a big part of that, and he was dynamite. His two-way game is the best in the NHL, following in the foot steps of Steve Yzerman. He was much deserving of the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as NHL playoff MVP.
The Penguins also made things simple for Detroit by becoming a one-line offensive team for the first four and half games of the final. Malkin’s trio with Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora, which had torn up the league for so many months, was largely ineffective until the end. They produced the overtime winner in Game 5 and had a solid Game 6.
Malone should escape blame, he played a gutsy final, having his nose broken twice, but if his gifted linemates aren’t producing neither will he.
Malkin took the brunt of the media criticism. It wasn’t because he played more poorly that many of his teammates, it’s just that their fall from grace wasn’t so dramatic. He’s a Hart Trophy finalist this season, a deserved recognition after a sensational year. He scored Wednesday night in his best game by far but was still limited to one goal and two assists in the six-game Cup final and ended his playoffs with five points in his final 10 games. There was word that he may have battled a flu early in the final.
Either way, he’s only 21 years old. A Russian star named Pavel Datsyuk eventually overcame his early playoff struggles with Detroit earlier in his career.
In the end, don’t discount the importance of the regular season. People often scoff at the President’s Trophy, but finishing first overall in the NHL gave the Wings home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. They went 9-2 at Joe Louis Arena. Making the young Penguins open on the road was key. The early 2-0 hole damaged their confidence and put them too far behind the eight-ball to come back.