Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ted Mouths Off: The better team won

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The 1994 Finals had the upstart Vancouver Canucks pushing the heavily favored New York Rangers to a seventh game. The Rangers had a 3-1 lead before the Canucks surprised them with two consecutive victories. The Rangers eventually won in Game 7.

The Red Wings were favored in this series and the ice tilted heavily toward them after they won the first two games in Detroit. But the Penguins, no longer the playoff newbies they were in 2008, never gave up hope that they could get back into the series. Two wins in Pittsburgh gave them confidence that they could outlast a Detroit team that was addled by injuries to some of their best players. Still, when Detroit took a 2-0 lead in the series it was difficult to imagine Pittsburgh – or any team – beating the Red Wings four out of five games.

Game 5 in Detroit seemed to seal the deal. The Red Wings were all over Pittsburgh, and the Penguins lost their cool. The 5-0 defeat the Penguins sustained seemed like their death knell. Another long summer in the Steel City seemed inevitable.

But they kept believing in themselves. They eked out a 2-1 win in Game 6 and forced the battered Red Wings into a position where all the pressure was on them.

Game 7, although probably not the best game in the series, was distinguished by the cool, calm demeanor of a Penguins team that wasn't expected to win the Stanley Cup. They capitalized on two uncharacteristic mistakes by Detroit defensemen and took a 2-0 lead into the third period. When the Wings scored with just over six minutes to play, the Penguins marshaled their forces and staved off a furious rush in the waning moments of the period. The Cup was theirs, and they deserved to win it. The better team won.

Pittsburgh accomplished this feat by bucking several trends. They were the only team to win a road game in the series. They won the series without a significant contribution from their star, Sidney Crosby. They came back from an early hole that historically has been just short of insurmountable. And, they beat a team that has enjoyed phenomenal success over the past 15 years, a team with an uncanny knack for ratcheting up their play in the most important games.

We will find out in the next little while that the Red Wings were beat up in a big way. Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, their two best defensemen, were playing with injuries that probably would have idled them during the regular season. Kris Draper had a bad groin, and Pavel Datsyuk had a hematoma in his foot that seriously impaired his ability to perform at his usual level of excellence. Dan Cleary was also banged up.

Injuries are not an excuse, however. Every player is battle-scarred at this point in the playoffs, and the credo in the NHL is that you play through the injuries you have.

The Penguins stole a page from the Red Wings' playbook. They used role players – Tyler Kennedy, Maxime Talbot and others — to do in the Red Wings. In the Wings' successful Cup runs in 1997, '98, 2002 and '08, it was the Kirk Maltbys, the Dallas Drakes and the Darren Helms who stepped to the fore and played huge games at crucial points in the series. The NHL playoff landscape is littered with stories about third-liners coming up big at key moments. It's part of the charm of this great sport.

The Red Wings won't do much tinkering in the offseason. They have a nucleus that is as strong as any team in the league. Chris Chelios won't be back and Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson have iffy futures in Detroit, mostly because of cap space issues. The Wings should consider buying out Maltby and Draper. Neither player makes much of a contribution to the team any longer and their departures would provide much-needed (and deserved) playing time for Justin Abdelkader, Helm and Ville Leino. But a healthy Detroit team is still as good as any team in the NHL and no one would be surprised to see them return to the Finals next season.

The Penguins should also be very good for some time to come. But their secret is out; they'll learn next season how difficult it is to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, because every team will be gunning for them. My advice for them is to enjoy their incredible accomplishment over the summer but remind themselves that it just gets harder from this point on.

It's a hockey cliché to lament that one of these teams had to lose the series, but the cliché fits in this case. This series featured two franchises located in cities that are as hard hit by the economic crisis as any in the United States. For two weeks, the citizens of Pittsburgh and Detroit were able to temporarily put aside their very real practical concerns to revel in a beautiful display of heart, grit and skill.

Both teams gave it their all for seven games and I find it impossible that anyone watching this year's Stanley Cup Finals could do anything but conclude the NHL playoffs are the most exciting spectacle in professional sports.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings put on a show worth watching. It served to remind us that this great game, at least for a short period of time, can salve our wounds and allow us to temporarily put our cares on the shelf.

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