The more things change, the more they stay the same. For the second consecutive year the NHL season wraps up with a Detroit Red Wings-Pittsburgh Penguins final. Let the battle between Motown and the Steel City commence!
Last year the Red Wings won in 6 games. Despite the addition of Marian Hossa near the end of the regular season, the Penguins struggled to generate offense in the finals. The only game in which they had more than 24 shots on goal was in Game 5, when they had 32. Unfortunately, it took three overtimes to get that many, although the 32nd shot was the game-winner and kept Pittsburgh alive for one more game.
Now Hossa is a Red Wing. He turned down a multi-year contract offer from Pittsburgh to sign with Detroit for just one year, trying to win a Cup. So if Pittsburgh wins this series, most players on both teams during the last two seasons would have a championship ring...but Marian Hossa wouldn't.
Here are some things to consider, not the least of which is that I'm now 12-2 in picking series winners...
Just like last year, Detroit has home-ice advantage, but in their two regular-season matchups this year it didn't matter; Pittsburgh won 7-6 in OT at Detroit in November, but the Wings were 3-0 winners in Pittsburgh in February.
Also, the revised schedule for this series (the first two games back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday, with the series shifting to Pittsburgh Tuesday) is not favorable to Detroit. The Red Wings have injury issues -- they expect Nicklas Lidstrom to be ready for Game 1, but Pavel Datsyuk and Jonathan Ericcson may not be, and Kris Draper is expected to be unavailable until later in the series. The nine-day layoff that would have been gained with both conference finals ending so quickly would have been beneficial to the Red Wings, but bad for TV ratings. (Speaking of TV, the first two games are on NBC and games 3 and 4 on Versus, a switch from previous years. Games 5 through 7 revert to NBC.)
Both teams have goalies who have performed well during their teams' runs. The Wings' Chris Osgood is 12-4 with a 2.06 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage, and the Pens' Marc-Andre Fleury has been just about as good (12-5, 2.62, .906). Osgood has won Stanley Cups, but Fleury is younger and perhaps more capable of spectacular saves in key situations. There's not much of an advantage either way.
Where there is an advantage is on special teams. Detroit's power play led the NHL in the regular season and is 3rd during the playoffs. Pittsburgh was 20th during the year but a big factor there was the absence of Sergei Gonchar due to a separated shoulder for the first 57 games. With Gonchar back (albeit currently playing with a knee injury) Pittsburgh is 7th in the postseason.
But the big difference is in penalty killing. The Pens ranked 8th during the season and 5th in the playoffs. The Red Wings -- surprisingly, considering their record -- were 25th of 30 teams this year, and are 14th among this year's 16 playoff teams.
The other advantage for the Pens is the dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They continue to lead the league in playoff scoring with 28 points each (14 goals, 14 assists for Crosby, 12 and 16 for Malkin). Crosby is also second in the league in plus-minus, with a plus-12, meaning he's not a defensive liability.
A Stanley Cup champion hasn't won back-to-back titles since the Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998. It's the first time since the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders met in the 1983 and 1984 finals that we've had a rematch. In 1983 the Isles won their fourth consecutive Cup, but the following year the Oilers ended the New York dynasty and began one of their own. While Detroit doesn't quite qualify for "dynasty" status, Pittsburgh hopes for a similar result to that of Edmonton, with the experience gained the previous year putting them over the top this time.
Starting the series with three games in four nights is going to take more of a toll on the Red Wings, and I think the Penguins will benefit from their experience last year. So while my initial knee-jerk pick was Detroit in 6, upon reflection I'm reversing course. Pittsburgh in 6.