Between the Lines: The Penguins vs. Red Wings matchup

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PENGUINS: Good thing Sidney Crosby is playing on an ankle that won't be 100 percent until next season. Otherwise, all those debates about who the best player in the world is might have to go back on hold. He and right winger Marian Hossa are starting to develop a scary chemistry and could give even a diligent defensive team like Detroit fits.

Evgeni Malkin was relatively quiet for much of the Eastern final, and his play could have a profound impact on how the series plays out. If he and linemates Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora are in sync, the Red Wings will be pressed to decide where to focus their attention.

Detroit isn't likely to make containing Jordan Staal's line a top priority -- not unless Staal continues the surge that has produced four goals in the past four games. The supplemental scoring Staal can provide could be a difference-maker.

One major area of concern: Faceoffs. The Red Wings have won 55.7 percent during the playoffs, the Penguins 46.7. And it's a whole lot easier to play a puck-possession game -- which both teams like to do -- when you, well, possess the puck.

RED WINGS: Detroit's No. 1 line, with Pavel Datysuk between Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom, not only is among the most impressive in the game, but is more defensively responsible than most checking lines. Zetterberg and Datsyuk are two of the three finalists for the Selke Trophy, which goes to the NHL's top defensive forward.

One of the pivotal variables could be the health of Johan Franzen, who missed most of the Western Conference final because of "concussion-like symptoms." He leads the playoffs with 12 goals (five of them winners) despite appearing in only 11 games.

If Franzen remains out, it will magnify Detroit's problems with secondary scoring. Franzen (12), Zetterberg (11) and Datsyuk (9) are the only Red Wings with than four goals. Guys like Holmstrom, Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler, Kris Draper and ex-Penguin Mikael Samuelsson are capable of scoring, but haven't done so with regularity. Until they start to, the Penguins will be able to concentrate their defensive efforts on neutralizing the Datsyuk line.

As for faceoffs, Draper (63.4 percent) and Zetterberg (57.9) figure to cause the Penguins particular problems.

BOTTOM LINE: Slight edge to Penguins.


PENGUINS: Sergei Gonchar's under-the-radar excellence doesn't seem to attract attention unless he's accumulating points, but he and Brooks Orpik have formed a pairing with the potential to frustrate even the most gifted opposing forwards. When those two aren't out against Datsyuk's line, Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill almost certainly will be. Gill and Scuderi don't make it onto the scoresheet much, but the guys they're assigned to play against generally don't, either.

A strong series by Ryan Whitney, who plays alongside rookie Kris Letang, would be a huge plus because he can add a dimension to the power play, while his puckhandling and passing ability can strengthen their transition game. Whitney's play could be one of the biggest wild cards in the series.

RED WINGS: Put Nicklas Lidstrom on a defense corps with four pylons and a fire hydrant, and it would be a pretty good group. Make him the cornerstone of a unit that includes Niklas Kronwall, Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart, and you have one with few equals.

The Penguins know all about Rafalski's offensive talents because of his time in New Jersey, but it shouldn't take long for them to get familiar with Kronwall. He skates well, has good skills and is a more enthusiastic hitter than anyone his size (6 feet, 189 pounds) should be.

Future Hall of Famer Chris Chelios isn't the force he used to be, but still is feisty and ultracompetitive while filling a supporting role.

BOTTOM LINE: Slight edge to Red Wings.


PENGUINS:Less than two months ago, Marc-Andre Fleury's ability to perform well in high-stakes games was one of the biggest question marks. Not anymore. He has been the Penguins' best player and, if he continues to perform at the same level, will deserve consideration for the Conn Smythe Trophy, regardless of how the series turns out.

Fleury dealt with a significant amount of traffic in and around his crease during the Eastern Conference final against Philadelphia, but should be ready for even more now. By the time the series is over, he'll have an enduring memory of what Holmstrom's back (and backside) look like, because he'll have spent the better part of two weeks trying to see around them.

RED WINGS:Chris Osgood entered the playoffs as Detroit's backup goalie, but when Dominik Hasek stumbled, Osgood replaced him and never did anything that merited relinquishing the job.

While there is a temptation to single out Osgood as one of the few potentially vulnerable spots, it's difficult to make the case that a guy who is 10-2 in the playoffs, with a 1.60 goals-against average and .931 save percentage, is a serious liability.

Still, Osgood wasn't tested as severely or often during the first three rounds as he should be in the final, so it's conceivable that the Penguins will be able to get to him with their speed and puck movement and, in the process, knock his game out of sync.



PENGUINS: Preventing Holmstrom from claiming a spot inside Fleury's sweater will be one of the penalty-killers' primary challenges, because even a goalie as hot as Fleury has been finds it difficult to stop what he can't see. The Penguins have done a pretty good job of dealing with screens and limiting second-chance opportunities for opposing power plays --- witness their 87.3 percent success rate -- but didn't run into anyone quite like Holmstrom during the Eastern Conference playoffs.

RED WINGS: Detroit's success rate of 87.3 percent is identical to that of the Penguins, but the Red Wings have been far more dangerous than any team in the league when they're down a man. They have scored five shorthanded goals, including two each by Franzen and Zetterberg, and are opportunistic enough to capitalize on any error opposing power plays make. Malkin, who generally plays the left point on the Penguins' top unit, might get special attention if the Red Wings determine they can force him to turn the puck over.



They have converted 24.6 percent of their opportunities, and have at least one power-play goal in 11 of their 14 playoff games. The production has been spread out -- nine players have contributed a goal -- but the strategy of loading the No. 1 power play with top-end talents like Crosby, Malkin, Hossa, Gonchar and Malone puts a particular strain on opposing penalty-killers. This might be a good time to reintroduce the backdoor play that created so many quality scoring chances for Whitney last season, too.

While Holmstrom poses the most conspicuous problem on Detroit's No. 1 unit, everyone else in the group -- Zetterberg and Datsyuk up front, Lidstrom and Rafalski on the points -- can move the puck quickly and shoot it with precision.

Detroit's power play sputtered for most of the Western Conference final, scoring just twice on its final 18 chances against Dallas. If the Penguins can survive the Red Wings' top group, the No. 2 group, which features the likes of Daniel Cleary, Hudler and Filppula, looks considerably less menacing.

BOTTOM LINE: Slight edge to the Penguins


Michel Therrien's detractors contend the Penguins got to the final despite what he and assistants Mike Yeo and Andre Savard did, not in any way because of it. It's unlikely he'll ever win over his most fierce critics, but the plain truth is that in Therrien's two full seasons, the Penguins have gone from next-to-last in the league to the Cup final. And some of the moves he made during the first three rounds helped them to get there.

Mike Babcock is a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy, and pretty much a consensus choice as one of the finest coaches and motivators in the NHL. Talent has a lot to do with the Red Wings being one of the NHL's premier teams, year in and year out, but sound coaching is a factor in that, too. Babcock and his staff are a real asset because of their knack for making sound tactical and personnel decisions and adjustments.



The Penguins will not have home-ice advantage for the first time in these playoffs. That's no small factor for a team that is 8-0 this spring and on a 16-0 run overall at Mellon Arena. Still, their 4-2 record on the road reflects the team-wide maturity and composure that belie the youth of many of their core players.

They haven't proven they can cope with major adversity during the playoffs, but that's because they won Games 1-3 in each of the first three series. The only thing better than overcoming adversity is never having to deal with it at all, although the Penguins can count on facing some -- possibly a lot -- against Detroit.

Detroit has more playoff experience and that can only help when trying to hold up under the stresses of a championship round, even though its most veteran players, like Chelios and Hasek, are cast primarily in supporting roles now.

The Red Wings will be a popular choice to win their fourth championship since 1997 given their talent, depth and leadership. That Detroit's five most recent series-clinching victories have come on the road speaks to its mental toughness and ability to focus, and the Red Wings are too poised and confident to react adversely to the pressures of being favored.

THE PICK: Penguins in seven. Picking a team to win a specific road game -- especially against an elite opponent like Detroit -- is risky. So is picking against a team that just doesn't realize it shouldn't be ready to win a title yet.


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