Advantages? Red Wings have ones that count

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In analyzing the Stanley Cup final, many prognosticators were so desperate to pick the Penguins to beat Detroit they barely glanced at such worthy regular-season statistical barometers as goals, goals against, power-play goals, penalty killing and faceoffs won -- all of which gave the Red Wings the edge -- and chose to focus on less scientific data.

The Penguins would win this series, they said, because of young legs and better goaltending. If the Penguins owned those advantages over Detroit, they might be bringing the Cup back to Pittsburgh. But thus far those advantages have not been evident. With elimination lurking -- the Red Wings have a 3-1 lead going into tonight's matchup at Joe Louis Arena -- let us take a look at these so-called advantages.

No question, the Penguins are younger than the Red Wings but youth doesn't always translate into fresher legs.

Compared to some of the Penguins, Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg is, at 27, ancient. But he's still a relatively young man and there has been no lack of spring in his legs. No one would be surprised if he takes home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He's a defensive fortress, which alone might win him the Smythe, but he has also been an offensive dynamo. He has fired off 19 shots in the four games, five more than Sidney Crosby.

Nor has there been any sign of fatigue coming from Nicklas Lidstrom, the great Detroit defenseman, who, at 38, can still dominate play. He scored a goal Saturday on a blistering slap shot from the blue line and was on the ice for a remarkable 28 minutes, 23 seconds.

In actuality, there has been no sign of fatigue from the Red Wings. In fact, the opposite is true. Where fresh legs might often make the difference is in the third period and in the third period the Red Wings have been dominant. It's the Penguins who have faltered late in the game.

Not only have the Red Wings outscored the Penguins, 6-1, in the final 20 minutes, they've outshot them a ridiculous 45-24.

It's pretty obvious that the fresh legs angle was wishful thinking, at best.

As for goalies, the edge Marc-Andre Fleury was expected to give the Penguins over Chris Osgood has not materialized, and understandably so. There was no real evidence that such an advantage existed.

It's true Osgood has not carved out a Hall of Fame career since entering the NHL in 1993, but he has proven to be more than competent. It's not like Fleury came in to this series with some long list of postseason accomplishments. He played well in the final months of the regular season and in the first three rounds of the playoffs, but there was no reason to believe he would outperform Osgood.

As it turns out, he hasn't. Osgood, with a superb defense in front of him, has allowed four goals in four games. Fleury has allowed 11.

Osgood has not been the difference in the series, but neither has Fleury.

The statistic no one wanted to look at was the 2.18 goals per game the Red Wings allowed in the regular season, which was best in the NHL. That defense is the difference in this series. It's allowing the Penguins almost nothing -- four goals -- and all of them on the dirty side. The Penguins' game of offensive finesse has been throttled.

With a monumental challenge in front of them -- winning three consecutive games with two of them on the road -- the Penguins talked a positive game when they gathered yesterday at Mellon Arena for an optional practice.

"The pressure is on them," opined defenseman Brooks Orpik. "We've got to go in there with nothing to lose and play desperate."

"The fifth game is very hard to win for the home team," Darryl Sydor said.

Probably the area where the Penguins see the greatest hope is they clearly narrowed the gap between them and the Red Wings in the two games at Mellon Arena. After being shut out in the first two games by a combined 7-0, they won the third game, 3-2, and lost the fourth game, 2-1.

Almost as though they'd rehearsed it, coach Michel Therrien, Crosby and Fleury all said the fourth game "could have gone either way."

So might the fifth. But to win three in a row against a team that has consistently outplayed them is just expecting too much from the Penguins.

It has been a great season and down the road there might be greater ones to come, but only when the Penguins hold legitimate advantages over their opposition.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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