You gotta love Stanley Cup rematches, right!
Don't even tell me that it bores you that the same two teams have qualified for the Stanley Cup battle two years in succession because, not only has it rarely happened, try your best to envision a possibly higher drama.
Often, when it comes to fans who are not neccessarily cheering for either team in the final, people often hope for different clubs making it year after year. Myself, I like the setup of a challenger having to win the Cup away from its present holder.
In that regard, what could be more enticing a scenario than the Cup holders defending their claim in a rematch against a team of up and comers, ready to challenge for Stanley a second year running?
Since the 1967 NHL expansion from the Original Six to today's 30 team league, rematches have occurred only 3 times.
1968-69 Montreal* / St. Louis
1977-78 Montreal* / Boston
1983-84 Islanders / Edmonton*
Only in one instance, has a previous challenger come back in 31 seasons, to remove the Stanley Cup from its previous holders, which was what the Oilers accomplished in 1984. Other occurrances since 1967 where challengers sought to take the Cup from its holders occurred only three times.
1975-76 Montreal* / Philadelphia
1999-2000 New Jersey* / Dallas
2000-01 Colorado* / New Jersey
For many people - including those who love or loathe Sidney Crosby - the final will be all about one of the NHL's markee players. For other fans, it will surely represent a classic final between what is without a doubt the league's top two clubs over the past two seasons. Whatever comes out of it - I'm predicting a classic for the ages.
Some will want to make it all about Sid, who happens to be playing the best hockey of his career. Crosby has not raised his game a notch, he has elevated his play several levels. I've seen close to 40 Cup finals in my life, and rarely have I seen a player on a mission to win like Crosby presently is. That NHL commercial - "Is This The Year?" - where Crosby says, "I never want to be in this photo again!", must have been taken extremely seriously. He's playing hockey like he will not be in that photo anytime soon.
Crosby is not working alone. On many nights, the Penguins Evgeny Malkin has been equally dominant. His offensive flair, highlight reel goals and a seven game multi point scoring streak make him a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate on a par with Crosby should Pittsburgh win.
On Detroit's side of the equation, there have been less remarkable individual performances, from what is undoubtably a deeper more experienced team. As champions, they have mastered the winning recipe, and seem to find ways to win games even when they have been slightly off the mark.
For well over a decade now, my post season focus tends to be on the Red Wings each year. I like to call Detroit my second favorite team. They remind me of nothing less than the 1970's Habs in a variety of ways. I have a great appreciation for how the organization have built their hockey club and for how they continuously maintain their level of on ice excellence. How they develop their players is beyond admirable. Drafting smartly and grooming wisely is the Wings calling card.
As much as I like and appreciate the players in the Penguins lineup, I'm no fan of how they have built their current team. The Pittsburgh organization would have had to be filled by incompetent hockey men not to have profited from five successive top five draft picks between 2002 and 2006. That's not a criticism. It's the reality of the situation that they placed themselves in. Throw in the luck of the roll of the dice in getting Crosby as the top pick in 2005, and you have a recipe for success that can hardly be duplicated without some creative duplicity.
From 2001 to 2003, Pittsburgh shed assets at an alarming rate. It almost seemed planned, as talents such as Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Martin Straka, and Alex Kovalev were firesaled as the club tanked. Pittsburgh finished with 96 points in 2001, and over the next four non playoff seasons, they racked up 69, 65, 58 and 58 points, allowing them to get their mits on a succession of high picks. It was hardly brilliant and it is barely veiled. The Islanders, in all their futility, could have done as much.
It gnaws that the Penguins have built their greatest teams via late season tanking. In 1983-84, with a 50 goal scorer in the lineup (Mike Bullard), a former Norris Trophy winning defenseman (Randy Carlyle), and a recent Vezina Trophy winning goalie (Denis Herron), the Penguins managed all of 38 points. It was that season's most interesting race, as Pittsburgh went 3-16-1 in their final 20 game stretch. New Jersey, equally motivated by the prize that was Mario Lemieux, went 4-14-2 in their basement sprint. The two clubs met just once in that span - on March 6, 1984 - and the Penguins did their best to get beaten by the Devils 6-5. I vividly recall the game raising eyebrows at the time, as it was certainly one game in NHL history in which the goal of both teams was to lose.
Historically, with an assist from the latter day Ottawa Senators, this is precisely the reason why the NHL now holds a draft lottery.
Despite all my past angst and aggravation over how the Penguins build their teams, I'm predicting that Crosby, Malkin and crew will edge the Red Wings in this rematch. It should go the distance, possibly neccessitating a long overtime. It could, and should be, that close.
I will be split in two, all the way to the Cup hoisting, because as a Canadiens fan watching the final - despite my tilt of allegiance to the Wings - I always cheer for the best final possible, with a seventh game decision.
I do not hold Pittsburgh's past tanking sins against them, when being dazzled by Crosby and Malkin's exploits. After all, it will be a long summer of no hockey, no matter what. I want seven games!
The reasons why I'm calling for the Penguins to win it, has all to do with Crosby and Malkin looking absolutely unstoppable thus far. Seeing former Islanders such as Satan, Fedotenko and Guerin raise their games of late, makes such a nonsense notion feel a little like destiny. That several key elements on the Red Wings are badly banged up, plays into this as well. In saying such, it still would not be a surprise for me to see the Red Wings pull it all off due to their superiority in terms of depth and experience. There is a wily core of Red Wings, who bring savvy street smarts to the rink nightly, in adjusting their game to suit any opponant.
In cheering for Detroit this post season, I just have that sense that it isn't going to happen for them. I hope I'm wrong.
As prediction go, in the past 29 season since the last Habs dynasty, my personal record is 27-2 when it comes to calling the winners. My two muffs were the 1989 Habs - of course - and the 2004 final, where I called the Flames to win. I'm still convinced that had officials seen Martin Gelinas' non goal in Game 6, that Calgary would have won.
On this site, I never ventured as far as calling for a Pittsburgh / Detroit final, but perhaps my hockey pool picks lend creedence to such a notion.
As it stands, 7 of my 15 picks are playing in the final. Selecting fifth in the draft, I still have Hossa, Zetterberg and Rafalski for Detroit, and Staal, Gonchar, Kunitz and Guerin for the Pens. I am 6 points ahead, and my nearest competitor - Wayne, a Red Wings die - hard - has only Fleury, Franzen and Holmstrom left. Wayne had first pick in the draft, and chose Ovechkin. I had fifth pick in the snaked rounds, and grabbed both Hossa and Zetterberg off the top.
Wayne won't like me much over the summer, if the Wings lose and I win the pool. My guess is that so far, it looks as like I'm in the money.