Sunday, June 08, 2008

Of The Four Recent Red Wings Victims, Pens Most Likely To Be Heard From Again

Sidney Crosby is gone for the summer. School’s out. His final exam performance wasn’t good enough to win the Stanley Cup. And all his young Pittsburgh Penguins schoolmates – those early-20-somethings who did their best to make the Red Wings’ lives spooky during this year’s Cup Finals – are gone with him, perhaps to gather together and raise a cold...soda (Sid’s only 20, don’t forget) and figure out a way to return to the championship round next spring.

The Penguins have the goods to do it, you know.

The Red Wings have sent four teams from the inferior Eastern Conference home for the summer since 1997.

There were the heavily-favored Philadelphia Flyers of ’97 – a big, supposedly fearsome team with a line called the Legion of Doom: wingers John LeClair and Mikael Renberg, and center Eric Lindros. How would the less physical (again, supposedly) Red Wings handle such beasts coming at them in droves throughout the Finals?

Easy. Coach Scotty Bowman just made sure defenseman Nick Lidstrom was on the ice, along with Larry Murphy, whenever the frightening Legion of Doom climbed over the boards. Bowman chose the finesse of Lidstrom and Murphy over the brawn of Vladimir Konstantinov, surprising those experts who had the Flyers winning the series rather handily. And finesse totally shut down the Legion. In fact, that line was so ineffective, the Flyers could have been considered to have Legionnaire’s Disease. The Red Wings swept. The Flyers haven’t been back to the Finals since.

The next year, the surprising Washington Capitals, who seemed to need a couple of games to simply explain their presence in the Finals, were flicked away in four straight games, though it took a classic comeback in Game 2 to assure that. But those Caps were a collection of has-beens and not-quites and fluked their way into the Finals. That team was never heard from again.

In 2002, the Carolina Hurricanes showed up in the final round, and while everyone was still asking, “Who ARE these guys?” the ‘Canes had stolen Game 1 in Detroit in overtime. The Red Wings needed a late goal to force OT and three extra sessions to win Game 3 in Carolina. But the Cup was won in five games, just one over the minimum, and it took the Hurricanes four more years to return to the Finals (they won it in 2006), and today they cannot be considered a good bet to do it again anytime soon.

But these Penguins, these young, high-scoring, physical Penguins, are sure to break the string of vanquished Red Wings opponents in the Finals who are never heard from again. In fact, don’t be surprised if by next Memorial Day we’re around our grills talking about a Red Wings-Penguins rematch. And continue to not be surprised if the other team wins it in 2009.

There’s Crosby, for one. His initials match the Stanley Cup’s, and it will be oh-so-appropriate by the time Sid the Kid’s career is over with – sometime in the year 2025 or so. Crosby, though crammed down an unsuspecting public’s throats by the league and its minions and propaganda machine (which includes the National Broadcasting Company), is indeed the real deal. He’s as close to the next Wayne Gretzky as the NHL is ever going to get – both in terms of sheer talent and potential to win multiple championships.

Crosby is the face of the NHL -- the closest thing to Gretzky since, well, Gretzky

There’s goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who didn’t have the best game of his career in Game 6 but who was the reason there was a sixth game to begin with, thanks to his 55-save performance in Game 5’s epic battle. He’s young, as all the Penguins seem to be, and there’s no reason why he can’t keep it up. There’s Evgeni Malkin, who was terribly disappointing in the Finals but who was terrific leading up to it, and actually showed some signs late in the series against Detroit that he was just a player in a slump at the worst possible time, and was about to break out of it. It gives me the creeps to think of what he may have done in a Game 7.

No need for me to rattle off other names from the roster. The ages are the first thing you should look at if you happen upon a listing on the Internet. Lots of 20s under the age column.

These Penguins more closely remind me of the Edmonton Oilers of 1983 than any other Cup-losing team since then, if you want to know. The ’83 Oilers lost in the Finals to the New York Islanders, who by beating Edmonton had just won their fourth straight Cup. And those Oilers were basically the same core who went on to win five Cups in the next seven seasons. The same Oilers led by Gretzky. The Oilers of Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, and the rest. The 2008 Penguins may have lost a Cup, but something tells me they gained a future.

If I was Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien – who must dump some of the whining and crying if he’s to raise his game to another level, by the way – I’d be sure to remind my players of how they turned what was looking to be a snoozer of a Finals series into one that won’t be forgotten for a long time, if ever. I’d affix it into their skulls that after being shutout in Games 1 and 2 in Detroit, hardly anyone thought the series would last to even a fifth game. But the Pens, who had breezed through the first three rounds without any adversity or angst, picked themselves off the mat, won two of three, and suddenly a series had broken out. The TV ratings confirm how much interest there was, despite those first two games that were all Detroit.

Yes, I’d say these Pittsburgh Penguins did more than just scare the bejeebers out of the Red Wings and their fans during the past couple of weeks. They arrived. And they’re not just passing through, like so many of the pretenders who’ve fluked their way to the Finals and lost, never to be heard from again. Uh-uh.

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