Monday, February 09, 2009

Red Wings' Dismantling Of Penguins Not Surprising

Once again, the NHL's Eastern Conference is chewing up and spitting out the previous spring's conference champion.

Add the Pittsburgh Penguins to the list of vanquished Red Wings opponents in the Stanley Cup Finals who appear to be one-hit wonders.

In 1997, the supposedly big, bad Philadelphia Flyers -- who were going to bully and abuse the Red Wings physically on their way to the Cup -- were swept, rather easily, by Detroit. The following season, the Flyers went one-and-out, losing in the first round of the playoffs in five games.

In 1998, the Washington Capitals somehow snuck into the Cup Finals, and were dutifully dispatched in four games by the Red Wings -- a series whose only drama was in Game 2, a heart-stopping comeback win for Detroit. The next season? The Caps went 31-45-6 and weren't close to making the playoffs.

In 2002, the Carolina Hurricanes were the latest "Cinderella" team to play for Lord Stanley's Cup. After a surprising Game 1 overtime loss in Detroit, the Red Wings flicked the 'Canes off their shoulders in four straight. The following season, the 'Canes sunk to a miserable 22-43-11-6 record.

The 2008-09 Penguins?

The Red Wings lost to the Pens, 7-6, in Detroit in November, but that was clearly a fluke. The Penguins didn't put up much of a fight in yesterday's 3-0 loss, at home, on national TV. One example of why they run the risk of being yet another Red Wings Cup Final victim to fail to make the playoffs the following season could be found in the Wings' final goal, late in the third period.

Pavel Datsyuk skated down the left wing, working against defenseman Kris Letang. Or, shall I say, OUTworking Letang. Datsyuk blasted a shot from the left wing, and after the rebound was kicked out considerably by Marc-Andre Fleury, Datsyuk showed more determination and effort in wrangling the loose puck, then muscling a backhander that trickled through Fleury's pads while Letang made a feeble attempt to stop him. Datsyuk made Letang look like an old man. Earlier, Marian Hossa skated between the circles without much resistance before he, too, deposited a backhand shot past Fleury.

Both goals were the result of one team working harder than the other. And wouldn't you think the Penguins would be the hungrier of the two clubs?

Two things can be culled from yesterday's whipping. One, the Red Wings proved why they should be considered Cup favorites, no matter what those Sharks in San Jose are doing. Why? Because the Red Wings don't cruise. They don't take anything for granted. And they're never truly happy with their game. Second, the Penguins are finding out what a difference a year can make.

To be fair, the Penguins have lost some people, both to retirement and free agency. Not the least of which is goalie Ty Conklin, who is making the Red Wings feel warm and fuzzy that they might have a suitable Plan B in the post-season, should Chris Osgood remain shaky. And of course, the Pens lost Hossa, who almost nightly shows why he's an elite player in this world, or any world.

It all underscores how amazing the Red Wings' past 16 years have been. In just about every one of those 16 springs, you could make a very good case for why the Red Wings are a legitimate Cup contender. Yes, there have been playoff disappointments aplenty, but that doesn't change what the Wings' status was, going in. Sixteen straight playoffs of being a Cup favorite. And these Eastern Conference Cup Finalists can't even make the playoffs just one season later? It can't be because of all the travel; Eastern Conference teams hardly have to even change time zones throughout the season.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, led by their superstar Sydney Crosby, are on the verge of being on the outside looking in come playoff time. This can't make league commissioner Gary Bettman feel very good. To have one of the NHL's faces at home come April has to give him the willies.

But Crosby was another Penguin who was a milk carton candidate Sunday afternoon. His presence on the ice was mainly a rumor. It wasn't just a bad day; it was because of what the Red Wings did to him.

The Red Wings seem to relish these "test" games. They slapped the Chicago Blackhawks down a couple notches at the turn of the year when the young Hawks got too big for their britches. And, with the country watching (well, this is the NHL, so with about 3% of the country watching), the Red Wings girded themselves and totally shut down the Pens, that 7-6 loss now a distant memory, for both teams.

Does a 3-0 win in February mean the Red Wings are going to hoist another Stanley Cup this June, their fifth in twelve years? No. But it sure as hell didn't do anything to weaken their status.

Strong Cup contenders. Again. Seventeen years and counting.

That ain't bad.

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