Penguins rivalry with Red Wings rooted in postseason

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This is not one of those Original Six rivalries that predates the invention of artificial ice.

Geographic proximity isn't much of a factor, either, and passions don't spike simply because the teams get tired of seeing each other during the regular season.

Indeed, when the Penguins and Detroit meet at 12:38 p.m. Sunday at Mellon Arena, it will be one of just two games between them this season.

But when teams collide in consecutive Stanley Cup finals, as the Penguins and Red Wings have, it doesn't much matter that there's no long history of animosity between the franchises or that they operate out of different conferences.

"Anytime you meet a team in back-to-back years in the Stanley Cup final, there's going to be some hatred," Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton said.

That might be one of the few things on which both clubs agree. (Although large segments of both fan bases have something else in common: A strong dislike for Marian Hossa, who left both teams via free agency.)

The Red Wings' feelings about the Penguins seemed to be summed up nicely a few days before the start of this season when forward Dan Cleary told "All due respect to Pittsburgh, and I believe they deserved to win because they beat us four out of five, but I can't stand Pittsburgh."

The Red Wings claimed the Cup in six games in 2008, the Penguins in seven in '09. On both occasions, the losing team was pressing for a goal that would have forced overtime as the final seconds of the deciding game melted off the clock.

Whether there will be a rubber match this spring remains to be seen, but the possibility looks rather unlikely at this point.

The Penguins, who sit fourth in the Eastern Conference, have not fared well against teams ahead of them in the overall standings, while the Red Wings were on a 1-3-3 skid and marooned in ninth place in the West before facing Nashville last night.

The Red Wings' offense, so deep and diversified for so many years, does not have anyone seriously flirting with a point-per-game pace, and their average goal output had dropped to 2.51 per game, fourth-lowest total in the league, before the Nashville game.

Last season, Detroit led the NHL with an average of 3.52.

Part of the problem is that guys like Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson, Tomas Kopecky and Hossa departed in the offseason, but it also is hard to ignore the impact injuries have had; the Red Wings have lost more than 260 man-games because of injuries and illness.

Winger Todd Bertuzzi and defensmen Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart are the only players to dress for each of Detroit's first 53 games.

The absentee list lately has been headlined by wingers Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen and defenseman Andreas Lilja, although Holmstrom is a candidate to return Sunday.

The Penguins, though, are adamant that the 25-19-9 record the Red Wings took into the Predators' game does not accurately reflect the quality of their personnel, even if their lineup seems rather diluted alongside the one the Penguins faced in the Cup final.

With the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and the incomparable Lidstrom, who has won six of the past eight Norris trophies as the NHL's finest defenseman, still on the payroll, the Penguins believe Detroit still has the potential to be a force in the playoffs.

"You know how much talent they have," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "You know how much experience they have. If they put those things together -- if they're healthy and playing well -- I believe they'll be a dangerous team going into the playoffs."

Gonchar's teammates seem to share his perspective, so they aren't taking Detroit's middle-of-the-pack placement in the standings at face value. Gonchar suggested it probably will be a nonissue Sunday for the Red Wings, too.

"Obviously, when they face us, they're not going to remember what position they're in [in the standings]," he said. "They're just going to go out there and play the best they can."

And, most likely, they are going to do it with the passion that crackles when two genuine rivals share a slab of ice.

"They don't like us," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "And we don't like them."

NOTES -- Wingers Nick Johnson and Chris Conner were returned to the Penguins' minor league team in Wilkes-Barre. ... Coach Dan Bylsma gave the Penguins Friday off.

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at . Dave Molinari: . First Published January 30, 2010 5:00 AM


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