DETROIT – The young legs of the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the experience of the Detroit Red Wings is a compelling storyline in the Stanley Cup final.
Which will win out? The average age of Penguins who have suited up for at least one game in the playoffs this spring is 27.9 years, while the Red Wings’ average is 32.3. That’s a difference of almost 4 1/2 years. “Age can be good this time of year,” says crease-crashing Detroit forward Tomas Holmstrom. “It means we have lots of experience.”
Ten Red Wings have earned Stanley Cup rings while only three Penguins have hoisted the Cup.
Holmstrom was asked during an interview Friday if he feels that experience trumps youthful vigour when the Stanley Cup is on the line.
“Yes, I do,” he replied.
The opening game is Saturday night (8 p.m. ET).
Pittsburgh forward Gary Roberts knows all about getting old. He turned 42 on Friday. He doesn’t see the average age of the teams as much of an issue, and he’s sure of one thing after getting to the championship series for the first time since 1989 when he played for Calgary.
“I remember winning it when I was 23 years old thinking: ‘How many more of these am I going to win?”‘ Robert said. “Well, I haven’t been to the Cup final since.
“So the message is: definitely enjoy it but recognize that it’s not going to happen every year. Enjoy the opportunity and take full advantage of it.”
Red Wings forward Dan Cleary points out that removing a 43-year-old backup goalie named Dominik and a 46-year-old defenceman called Chris from the arithmetic paints a more realistic picture of the team’s age status.
“Take out Hasek and Chelios and we’re dramatically younger,” Cleary said. “All kidding aside, at this time of year I don’t think (age) is going to be a factor. Everybody is ready. The guys are well-rested. Our oldest guys have been our best players for a lot of the year. When it comes to it, we’ve got (28-year-old Henrik) Zetterberg and (29-year-old Pavel) Datsyuk. Those guys are ready to go.”
Chelios will be become the oldest player ever to appear in the NHL’s championship series.
“I’m very fortunate to be in this situation but the bottom line is I’m on a great team and I’ve been lucky enough to hook up with a team where I can fit in nicely,” he said. “I’ve got a role as a penalty killer and a defenceman supporting the young kids as I’ve done over the last couple of years.
“I couldn’t be happier. I would be kicking myself if I’d retired a year or two ago and missed out on this.”
He might not get into Game 1 because coach Mike Babcock is expected to go with the same lineup that was so impressive in eliminating Dallas last Monday night. Chelios sat that one out with a sore knee.
A media horde surrounded him Friday. He was repeatedly asked about his ability to continue playing in the best hockey league in the world at age 46.
“It’s a black cloud over my head and there’s nothing I can do about it,” he kidded. “If I could change things, I’d have lied about my age 20 years ago and bought myself a little time.”
Asked if he has the same passion for the sport he had 20 years ago, Chelios replied: “Yeah, just different legs.”
Cleary has no doubt that the Red Wings will be able to play at a pace equal to that of the younger Penguins.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a problem for us,” said Cleary.
Teammate Dallas Drake agreed.
“It’s irrelevant,” he said of the age difference. “They’ve got a young team, very energetic, but this time of year when you’re playing for the Stanley Cup we’re going to find a way to have energy as well.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys as well. A lot of our better players are young guys.”
Penguins forward Max Talbot was asked if he thinks his team can skate circles around the older Red Wings.
“I don’t think so,” he replied. “Obviously, their experienced but I don’t think they’re that old.
“Look at a guy like (defenceman Nicklas) Lidstrom. He’s once again the best defenceman in the league. He’s getting older and older but he’s still playing really good and he makes everybody around him a better player. Everybody talks about youth versus experience but for us it’s two good hockey teams that are going to go head to head.”
But Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is only 20 and teammate Evgeni Malkin is only 21. How can the Red Wings keep up with them?
“It’s one of those things everybody looks at and says, ‘Hey, it might make a difference,”‘ Detroit defenceman Brad Stuart said when the age issue was broached. “But I don’t think so.
“If you’ve made it this far, you’re doing something right. Once you get to this point, I don’t think (age) makes much difference.”
Said 35-year-old Red Wings forward Kirk Maltby:”I just think it’s something that gets blown out of proportion”.
The Red Wings’ big edge in experience doesn’t intimidate the confident Penguins.
“We respect their team whether they have old guys of young guys,” said Crosby. “We have a lot of young guys but we’ve responded well to adversity all year.”
Added defenceman Kris Letang: “They have experience but we have a lot of talent and guys who have really matured. We’ve been through three series and we’ve faced more experienced teams and we made out OK.”
Chelios agrees with Holmstrom.
“We really believe that our experience is one of our strengths,” he said.
Chelios said the series, on paper, is “so even.”
“I couldn’t think of a better matchup and I think everybody is happy this is the way it ended up turning out,” he said.
Darren Helm is the youngest Red Wing at 21.
“There is definitely an age difference between the teams but I’m the youngest guy on our team so I’ll be playing against some guys my age for a change in these playoffs,” he said.
Babcock says “there’s a huge difference between the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Stanley Cup final.”
He can see it in what he describes as the giddiness of the players, and “that’s the same whether you’re 38 or 21.”
The age-versus-experience storyline might be based on faulty math, Babcock suggested.
“When I saw (Crosby) the first time it was at the world junior tournament and he was the first-line centre when he was 16 or 17,” said Babcock. “He’s always been ahead of himself.
“So, that makes him probably about 25 hockey-wise.”