NHL Finals 2009: Two down…


With two games of the NHL finals in the books, it’s time for the customary “everything we thought was completely wrong” overreaction column. Here are three things we learned over the weekend:

Defense really does win championships.

Sometimes things become clichés for a reason. The Red Wings and Penguins – two of the NHL’s most explosive offenses – both look resolved to clamp down and make this a defensive chess match of a series. The logical question is, why now? Both teams just burned through their respective semi final opponents, why not look to keep the offensive momentum going into the finals? The answer is discipline. Detroit and Pittsburgh are two of the most disciplined teams in the league. They listen to the coaching staff, and buy into the system that will best serve them for any given game. Detroit coach Mike Babcock, and his Penguin counterpart Dan Bylsma are keenly aware that this finals is a matchup of the two best teams in hockey. Mistakes made by either club are going to wind up in the back of the net.

Both coaches have ordered their clubs into safe mode – forwards backcheck hard, defense clears the front of the net, keep the puck out of the middle of the ice – in an attempt to win the cup along the boards. The net result of this is that the viewer is seeing a breathtaking display of versatility on the ice. Detroit, with their four thirty goal scorers, and Pittsburgh – with two of the league’s top three leading scorers (you read that right) – are attempting to decide a Stanley Cup Champion based on defense. This might seem a bit like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer settling Wimbledon with a home run derby, but it happens all the time in sports. When the Patriots and Giants met in the Super Bowl two years ago, it was widely billed as the Patriot’s offense against the Giant’s defense, yet the game will inevitably be remembered for the Giant’s offense shredding the Pats’ D and providing me with the happiest moment I will ever experience. What’s the point of that misguided comparison? Learn to appreciate the unexpected. This is going to be a great series, but not in the way anyone expected.

The goaltending is going to give me a heart attack

The two goalies in this series present a drastic stylistic difference, yet neither one is any better (or worse) than the other. Pittsburgh has Marc-Andre Fleury, the former number one draft pick who plays with just about the smoothest style of any goaltender in the league. Fleury has the ability to make any save, and make any save look effortless. From my living room he looks calm and confident. Of course, he also has a knack for (calmly and confidently) giving up horrendous goals. He has a difficult time keeping track of the puck, a habit that leads to poor rebound control and, ultimately, will give Detroit between three and five easy goals this series. He’s exactly as capable of stealing a game for Pittsburgh as he is of handing one to Detroit. Pittsburgh would never admit this, but he was a fairly poor number one overall draft pick. Opposite Fleury stands Chris Osgood, a goaltender whom I am obligated to describe as “disrespected”. Osgood, sometimes called “The Wizard of Oz” – although never by me – put together just about the worst regular season of any NHL starting goalie this year, yet seems to have turned it around with a solid stretch of play during these playoffs. He is the funhouse mirror image of Marc-Andre Fleury. Osgood plays with no easily discernible style in net, never looks particularly composed, and generally makes the viewer feel as if every dump in has a legitimate chance to squeak past him – something that has definitely happened in the past. Yet Osgood, for all he lacks in athleticism, does have a knack for making big saves at big times. His breakaway stop on Evgeni Malkin (the likely NHL MVP) in Game one was a thing of beauty. In the same breath, it should be said that the Penguins lone goal in Game one was also completely Osgood’s fault.

I’m ready to expect anything from these two netminders: long scoreless stretches, thirteen combined goals a game, both getting pulled, both scoring on each other. I’m holding my breath during every shot on goal.

Things are about to get nasty

Of course, neither of these teams are the 1970s Flyers – there aren’t going to be any sucker punches or bench-clearing brawls. But both Detroit and Pittsburgh are more physical teams than most people realize. Detroit has Niklas Kronwall, one of the most feared open-ice hitters in the game, as well as a bruising corps of forwards led by Johann Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom. Even the diminutive speedster Darren Helm isn’t afraid to throw his body around. A big part of Detroit’s offensive scheme – especially if Hart Trophy candidate Pavel Datsyuk doesn’t come back – is going to be the dump in combined with an aggressive forecheck on Pittsburgh’s defense to try and create turnovers. Marc-Andre Fleury is going to see quite a few red-shirted bodies parked in front of him. On the flip side, Pittsburgh’s defense is an underratedly mean crew. Hal Gill, at six foot seven, is adept at forcing forwards to the wall and cutting off the rush. And there aren’t many worse places to be trapped than between unforgiving plexiglass and two hundred fifty pounds of Pittsburgh Penguin. Meanwhile, Gill’s occasional partner on defense is Brooks Orpik, a player who has quietly submitted himself for consideration in the “cheapest player in the league” sweepstakes. Orpik is precisely the kind of stick-in-the-back-of-the-knees defenseman who can make Detroit’s skilled group of forwards pay for their points.

So how will things play out the rest of the series? I expect a high energy series, with both teams really emphasizing the fundamentals. The Red Wings are going to try to keep the puck out of the middle of the ice on defense, and create lots of traffic in front of Pittsburgh’s net in an attempt to put in garbage goals, while Pittsburgh will use their speed to draw penalties on Detroit and then look to capitalize on the power play. The team that refuses to get sucked into their opponent’s game plan is going to be the team sipping champagne in a week.

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