"It's déjà vu all over again."
Simple brilliance plays its way out all the time it seems and the Stanley Cup Finals this year are no different, especially since it involves the same two teams we saw there last year.
Detroit and Pittsburgh: Let's dance again.
When I wrote my preview on last year's Finals, I surprised myself with how tuned in I was. To make a long story short, I shocked myself with how I was able to sound more competent than a CBC Color Analyst.
Obviously I watched a lot of hockey.
One of the things I said last year about the Finals seemed to come through in how the Pittsburgh Penguins played this entire postseason and it's how they have to approach the Red Wings this year as well. Last year, Michel Therrien was too stubborn and too foolish and too immature to implement a plan of attack that took it to the Red Wings and he ignored this sage advice from the relatively unknown blogger who calls himself Hockey Joe:
Pittsburgh's plan of attack here has to be to push, pressure and force the issue. Make Detroit get back on their heels and defend, to throw the puck at the net and keep control of it themselves. If Pittsburgh does indeed decide to pile into their zone defensively and rely on blocking shots and trying to stop Detroit at the blueline...they're going to spend a lot of time waiting for Detroit to just give up the puck to them on a dump in or turnover.
Pretty brilliant stuff there, right?
This year's version of the Penguins, at least the ones coached by Dan Bylsma anyhow, have shown that they'll attack and forecheck and pressure the living hell out of the other team and force them to make bad passes and turn it over.
Well how about that?
Then again, I like to pat myself on the back as it is anyhow with regard to the Penguins because the Pens have shown that they're begrudgingly listening to me from afar as it is anyhow.
Again, a flashback to something I wrote last year after just Game 4 of the Finals:
It's tough to say that you want to run a guy out of town after he takes his team to the Stanley Cup Finals, but these finals have shown me that Michel Therrien is the absolute wrong guy to take the Pittsburgh Penguins into the future. He's certainly not Glen Sather, who in the same position with a similarly young and talented team in the early 1980s, was able to take his lumps against the New York Islanders and use that as a building block to take the league over. I don't recall ever seeing Glen Sather hitting the press and setting a bad example for Gretzky and Messier and Kurri.
Given what Michel Therrien has shown here, he can only lead this young bunch to more bad habits. There are some good coaches out there waiting to be hired right now that would suit this team a lot better. It might behoove the Penguins to make a move once the series is over and should the Penguins, indeed, lose out to get Therrien out of there and get someone who can mold this team better for the future.
On February 15th, 2009 Michel Therrien was mercifully fired by the Penguins. Not-so coincidentally enough, the Penguins got their collective heads out of their ass and steamed their way back into the playoff picture and now they're in the Stanley Cup Finals after disposing of a gassed and punchless Carolina Hurricanes team.
So what did we learn here? We learned that I'm an idiot savant and master of the obvious. We also learned that ONE YEAR AGO I was using the already-tired comparison of the current Penguins squad to the 1980s Edmonton Oilers.
Then again, it doesn't help that the Oilers in the 80s got smacked around by the Islanders in 1983 and then bitch-slapped an old and on-the-way-out Islanders team in 1984 to win the Stanley Cup. I feel I have to be the guy to put this nonsense comparison to rest.
The Islanders after 1984 have been irrelevant to the NHL outside of a few stunning and spectacular finishes in the playoffs, but they never made it back to the Finals after that drubbing at the hands of Gretzky and Messier and Kurri and all the other Hall of Famers on that team. The Oilers, of course, moved on to be a powerhouse for the rest of the decade until Peter Pocklington needed money and Wayne Gretzky got too big for the City of Edmonton.
These Penguins are set for a while with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Coincidentally enough, these Red Wings while some of the parts are old (Nicklas Lidstrom, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Chris Osgood... I guess) this isn't a team that's going anywhere.
Andrew Divoff, the Wishmaster, says: Fulfill the prophecy.
Should Detroit lose to Pittsburgh and fulfill the Gretzky Prophecy, these Red Wings won't fade into oblivion, they'll be back again and again and again as long as Mike Babcock is behind the bench. I'm not going to prattle on about the depth of Detroit, that's been shown off enough already in Game 4 and 5 against Chicago.
No Lidstrom and no Datsyuk? Meh, no problem.
As for this Final... Good luck breaking it down because there's a lot going on here that doesn't point to any definitive answers.
What do I know? Crosby and Malkin look a lot better and are teeming over in confidence, a lot more so than last year. Are they as dangerous offensively? Sure they are... As long as they follow the guidelines I told them to follow last year - which means not changing a damn thing from what they've been doing in the playoffs so far.
The Penguins have stayed healthy most of the playoffs and the one guy who may still be iffy out there is power play guru Sergei Gonchar whose knee hasn't been the same since having it knocked around by Alex Ovechkin in the second round.
Christopher Walken in "The Prophecy": I thought prophecies were my thing. I mean, jeez. Come on!
As for Detroit, a lot of the attention on them is on injuries. After all, Nick Lidstrom missed the last two games against Chicago with a mysterious "lower body injury" rumored to be a problem with his ankle. Pavel Datsyuk has been out with the same "lower body injury" since after Game 2 against Chicago, of which no one can really guess what the deal is although rumors of a broken foot have swirled.
Kris Draper has missed time with a groin problem although his replacement in the lineup, Darren Helm, seems to be doing all right for himself and had his definitive game of the playoffs to this point in Game 5 doing a masterful job killing a penalty and scoring the game-winning goal in overtime to vanquish the Blackhawks.
I can't help it, I'm a sucker for the Keyboard Cat.
The reason why I say it's tough for me to gauge just how well Pittsburgh is doing is because the Eastern Conference has been a joke all year and that really showed through in the playoffs.
No, the Penguins aren't a joke - settle down. The Penguins (along with the Bruins) were the two teams I was banking on to find a spot in the Finals. Everyone else? Flawed beyond belief. Flyers, Capitals, Devils, Rangers... flaws everywhere. Boston getting bounced by a hot Carolina team (and they were red hot coming into the playoffs) was about as shocking a result as you could ask for in these playoffs. The Hurricanes having to go through brutally tough defensive teams with a penchant for falling asleep offensively like the Devils and Bruins drained them and the fact that they were able to make their way to the Conference Finals blows my mind. There's no reason why they beat the Devils and it's unreal that they beat the Bruins.
Cam Ward should get a medal of honor for his work having a bum squad of defensemen playing in front of him like Joni Pitkanen, Denis Seidenberg, Anton Babchuk, Niclas Wallin, the mentally fragile Joe Corvo, Tim Gleason, Frank Kaberle.
Really, who the hell are these guys? Whoever they are, they couldn't handle Pittsburgh and Cam Ward only had so many horseshoes up his ass to sustain the 'Canes.
What I do know about Pittsburgh is that they're immensely talented and can score in bunches but are they the dominating buzzsaw we watched in the latter stages of the series with Washington and all throughout the Carolina series?
Can't answer that without making myself into some jerk, so I won't bother.
A lot of folks want to harp on the goaltending for these teams and frankly any fair praise and criticism lobbed at either guy is earned and fair. Many folks are waiting for the "real" Chris Osgood to show up, same goes for Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury got through his potential buzzsaw series with the Capitals and Osgood got through his nightmare with Anaheim.
I'd like to say I'd be shocked if I saw Osgood or Fleury get lit up in the Finals... But I can't in good faith say that. If either or both goaltenders fell off the wagon in this series I would be confident in saying, "Yeah, you could see that coming."
Them's the breaks but anyone looking to cite the regular season performance and trying to apply that to how these guys have done in the playoffs so far is an idiot, a jerk or both. Apples and oranges there kids and it makes me wonder what the hell the deal is with Detroit and I can't help but feel we're getting played by Mike Babcock.
The Wings for the better part of the regular season played sloppy, made folks buy into the talk of a Stanley Cup hangover and Osgood was often outplayed by backup Ty Conklin this season. They were defensively sloppy, Osgood looked lost more often than not and the team would seemingly take two out of three periods off in a game only to turn it on to show that they can still do it.
The playoffs start and Detroit has to deal with a Columbus team that gave them fits all year long and then promptly mops the floor with them in four straight.
Wha... What happened?
They draw Anaheim and predictably struggle with a team that rolls rough and tumble with the best of them and Detroit even manages to get through some suspect rulings and find their way into the Conference Finals against the new up and comers of the NHL and the feel-good story for the Original Sixers in Chicago and manages to get through them seemingly easily in five games.
What's at play here? I think Babcock and the Red Wings have been giving everyone the Milton Berle treatment. Yes, that's right, I'm going to give credit to Bill Simmons here. What's the Milton Berle treatment? From Simmons:
In case you didn't know, Berle was famous in Hollywood circles for being more endowed than anyone else. Basically, he was the Dirk Diggler of Hollywood. (Note: There's a hysterical anecdote in the SNL book "Live From New York" about this. Highest of high comedy.) Anyway, the famous story about Berle (maybe an urban legend, maybe not) was that somebody challenged him to a "who's bigger?" contest once, and Berle soundly defeated the guy, then bragged to someone else in the room, "I only pulled out enough to win."
I don't 100% believe that's what the Red Wings have been doing all season, but the final two games with Chicago showed me something that Mike Babcock has been in his own way trying to keep a lid on and that is how sickeningly deep and talented this team is. The regular season for all NHL teams is an unending grind filled with unlimitless potholes and boredom. The playoffs is what it's all about and for teams like Detroit where they're playing 82 games just to get to the real show... Well, why open the bag of tricks right from the get-go so everyone knows how to prepare for your team?
Just ask the Sharks about how that worked out for them.
Add in the new mysteries here in the playoffs with Lidstrom's injury (which I'm not buying for a second) and Datsyuk's injury (which I do sort-of believe to be mostly true) and the whole thing stinks to me of Babcock only breaking out just enough to win.
After all, when your team dismantles the opponent 6-1 in a game where Lidstrom is out, why suit him up again and risk injury when everyone had everything sealed up nicely without him? Why not rest him up for what could be a short turnaround to Game 1 of the Finals if you win Game 5. Worked out well this time I'd say.
Kris Draper goes down with the same groin injury he had previously and Darren Helm and his fresh legs and speed to burn get to jump in the lineup without controversy? Sounds pretty ideal to me.
Same thing with the talk of Osgood being "dehydrated" during that 6-1 flogging and not playing the third. I don't buy into that for a second, but Mike Babcock will feed that to all the beat reporters and they'll all report it as fact meanwhile he's back in the office laughing at them knowing full-well that he wasn't going to leave his main man in a game where the other team is skating around like a bunch of angry kids and you don't know what they'll do next. Why risk a needlessly stupid injury at the hands of guys that could give a crap about your players in that kind of hornets nest - just sit him out for the third period and get him ready 20 minutes sooner for Game 5.
Will they need all hands on deck to make sure Pittsburgh doesn't run wild like Macho Man Savage on Detroit? Absolutely, although I don't think Babcock is terrified of the Penguins the way many folks seem to think they will be.
I'm just wondering if my Milton Berle supposition here is going to play its way out and say, perhaps, Pavel Datsyuk has a "good enough" morning skate on Saturday and he's a go for Game 1. I think Babcock is playing everyone here and look out if he is, because if he whips it out all the way... It's going to be a freak show out there.
If he's not doing that and Pittsburgh is exactly what they've looked like the last few weeks this is going to be a series for the ages and the official start of a cross-conference rivalry for all of us to sit back and enjoy for the years to come.
Just remember, if the Penguins win and writers from across the Internet start proclaiming their ability to predict the Gretzky Prophecy just remember that it was right here where the comparisons began in earnest a year ago and that Andrew Divoff and Christopher Walken are going to kick their asses for fulfilling the prophecy.