You can count Henrik Zetterberg among the people who think the Pittsburgh Penguins are better than their current record suggests.
The Detroit Red Wings forward isn’t just basing his opinion on last year’s Stanley Cup final, either. He also remembers a game in November when Pittsburgh scored four times in the third period against Detroit to pull out a wild 7-6 overtime victory at Joe Louis Arena.
In other words, Sunday afternoon’s game between last year’s Stanley Cup finalists might end up being closer than their current records suggest.
“They have a good team,” Zetterberg said Thursday during a conference call. “When they’re playing good, they should be higher than they are in the standings.
“But still it’s real tight, so I’m pretty confident after 82 games they will be in a playoff spot.”
The fact that they aren’t right now just adds another element to an interesting matchup.
On Sunday, Detroit will be playing its first game at Mellon Arena since clinching the Stanley Cup there in June. Zetterberg expects to experience a few fond memories when he gets back in the building.
“It was just a great atmosphere going in and playing there,” he said. “It was good hockey games. It was tough. It was really tough all the way till the end.
“A few seconds, a few inches (and they) would have tied it up in Game 6. The last seven seconds there, it’s probably the one thing that really stands out for me.”
He received the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP shortly before Nicklas Lidstrom hoisted the Stanley Cup.
Since the lockout, teams appearing in the NHL’s championship series have had a tough time following that success up a year later. Carolina and Edmonton both missed the playoffs in 2007; Anaheim and Ottawa each went out in the first round last spring.
It’s still a little early to predict whether that trend will continue, although there weren’t many hockey observers that thought Pittsburgh would be out of playoff position at this point of the season.
The Penguins hope to get on a roll after Wednesday’s emotional comeback win over Tampa. Evgeni Malkin scored the overtime winner in that one and summed up the overall mood around the team afterwards: “I’m mad because we’re losing.”
There have been fewer bumps for a Red Wings squad that sits second in the Western Conference. However, they recently endured a five-game losing streak and haven’t seemed quite as invincible as in the past.
Zetterberg acknowledged that the team went through a bit of a Stanley Cup hangover.
“Well, I think just that you played so long last year,” he said. “With the short summer, you’re right back in it again. I think for us it’s been tough in the beginning. A few games, it’s been tough to find the momentum from the beginning. A few games we’ve been down a few goals right away, and it’s tough to win games that way.
“I think that’s the biggest issue we had this year is just to be ready from the start. But lately I think we’ve been playing better, playing better for 60 minutes.”
A rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup will provide something of a litmus test for both teams.
Both the Penguins and Red Wings are aware of the importance of getting hot before the post-season gets underway. It’s not just a matter of flipping an internal switch in April.
“You can’t just turn it on,” said Zetterberg. “You have to prepare yourself. I think you do that in the games before the playoffs start. It gets tighter and tighter in the standings. Games get kind of more and more intense.
“So I think you automatically prepare yourself for the playoffs because the games are more like playoff games.”
All and all, it’s been an eventful season for the Swede.
Zetterberg recently signed a US$72-million, 12-year contract extension that should keep him with the Red Wings for the remainder of his career. Even though the negotiations took some time to complete, he said they weren’t much of a distraction.
There was no way he was going to wait until this summer and become an unrestricted free agent.
“I think I made my decision a long time ago,” said Zetterberg. “I told my agent Mark Levine that I want to stay: ‘You don’t have to tell (GM Ken Holland) that right away, but I want to stay, just find a way. We have to find a deal that works for both of us.”‘