Stanley Cup Finals preview

The matchup of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings in this year’s Stanley Cup finals gives the National Hockey League something it desperately wanted: the presence of Sidney Crosby. You’ll know this if you tune in by all the praise constantly being thrown Crosby’s way. It’ll be the verbal equivalent of fellatio. I imagine that when I’ve got the games on, I’ll be watching them with the sound muted.

Will the Crosby factor be enough to drive up the ratings for NBC and Versus? It’s possible. Crosby and his Penguins were part of the Winter Classic, which drew a surprisingly good rating. On the other hand, the novelty of a hockey game being played outdoors in the snow in a football stadium on New Year’s Day may have been a larger factor.

The bad news is that the first two games are on Versus, starting on Saturday night in the middle of Memorial Day weekend, a night when just about no one in America is sitting at home glued to their televisions. The rest of the series will be on NBC, which averaged a measly 5.5 million viewers in prime time last week. The good news is that, according to this Denver Post hockey blog, NHL ratings on NBC are up 25 percent from last year, and ratings on Versus are up a whopping 71 percent.

The other good news is that, on paper, it ought to be an entertaining series. Both teams are strong. Detroit finished with the league’s best regular-season record and rolled through the Western Conference playoffs, compiling a 12-4 record in finishing off Nashville in six games, Colorado in four and Dallas in six. Pittsburgh was second in the Eastern Conference during the season and had an even more impressive playoff run, sweeping Ottawa and losing just once each to the New York Rangers and Philadelphia. (Due to the now-scrapped schedule format which featured additional intra-division games, the Penguins and Red Wings did not meet during the regular season.)

In the playoffs, Pittsburgh and Detroit are first and second in average goals per game scored and allowed. Detroit is first, Pittsburgh fourth, in shots on goal per game, both for and against. So the Red Wings are taking more shots, but the Pens are scoring on a higher percentage of the shots they take. On the power play Pittsburgh is second, with a 25 percent success rate, while Detroit is fifth at 21.3 percent. Both teams have killed off 87.3 percent of opponents’ power plays.

Both teams have firepower. The top five point-scorers in the postseason are Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg (pictured) and Pittsburgh’s Crosby (21 points each), Pittsburgh’s Marian Hossa and Evgeni Malkin and Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk (19 points each). A key will be the health of the Red Wings’ Johan Franzen. He still leads the league with 12 playoff goals despite missing the last five games with concussion-like symptoms. (By the way, at some point, shouldn’t they just call it a concussion and be done with it?) The Detroit Free Press reported that Franzen is doubtful for the first game on the series. If he isn’t playing, the Penguins can key on one Detroit scoring line instead of two. Detroit doesn’t have that luxury, with Crosby and Malkin centering different lines.

Both teams also have gotten fantastic goaltending. The Pens’ Marc-Andre Fleury has stopped 93.8 percent of the shots he’s faced, while the Wings’ Chris Osgood has turned aside 93.1 percent. However, there’s one position in which Detroit has a strong advantage. While both teams’ defensemen dominate the plus/minus ratings leaderboard, Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski are three of the top five point scorers among defensemen, while only Sergei Gonchar of Pittsburgh is a real offensive threat.

A strong group on defense, particularly in keeping the puck away from the Penguins, would really have helped the Flyers in their series against the Pens (not to mention my series prediction record, which fell to 9-5 with both the Flyers and Stars failing to live up to my expectations). Instead, Kimmo Timonen missed the first four games due to a blood clot. Braydon Coburn was hit in the face by a puck in the first two minutes of the second game and wasn’t seen again. Derian Hatcher, not very mobile to begin with, had fluid drained from his knee every day, already having returned earlier than expected after breaking a bone in his leg. And only now has it been revealed that Jason Smith played the entire playoffs with two separated shoulders, getting regular painkiller injections throughout, forcing him to be less physical and reducing his effectiveness.

Assuming injuries don’t take a similar toll on Detroit, I expect the Red Wings will win the Stanley Cup. The NHL and the networks will have to wait for the ultimate coronation of Sidney Crosby. Detroit in 6. -- Joe Guckin

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