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Lidstrom ready to make history

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Few things please me as much as watching old stereotypes get blown to pieces. A hockey myth is headed for extinction, and Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom is the man who can finally put it to rest.

Lidstrom's Red Wings have taken a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals and are just one victory away from winning their fourth title in 12 years. If Detroit holds on, Lidstrom, a Swede, will become the first-ever European captain to lead his team to a Stanley Cup crown.

The myth that only North American captains could lead an NHL team to postseason glory is one that has its roots in the Cold War. As European nations, especially the former Soviet Union and countries from the Eastern Bloc, became increasingly competitive in international play, a bitter hockey rivalry developed between North America and Europe.

While the Soviets dominated the international hockey landscape by winning seven Olympic Gold Medals from 1956 to 1988, the NHL was still mainly ruled by players from Canada and some from the United States.

Nicklas Lidstrom is almost a lock to win his sixth Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman.
However, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of Communism in countries such as the former Czechoslovakia, more and more players from Europe sought hockey fame in North America.

At first, many NHL fans and hockey experts rooted against European players, unless of course you happened to pull for a team like the Quebec Nordiques, who helped break down barriers with the acquisition of the Stastny brothers in the early 1980s.

Despite the success of the Stastnys and other great Europeans in the NHL like Jarri Kurri, many critics felt that the newcomers lacked the toughness and grit needed to succeed in the North American game.

However, once players like Mats Sundin of Sweden, the first ever European taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and Czech winger Jaromir Jagr, who has won five scoring titles since entering the league in the early 1990s, began to have great success in the league, that's when the goalposts were moved once again. All of a sudden, the battle cry was no longer that Europeans couldn't succeed in the NHL, but that they couldn't be successful captains. And in hockey, of course, being known as a successful captain has everything to do with winning a Stanley Cup.

Enter Lidstrom, the mild-mannered native of Vasteras, Sweden, who is already considered to be the greatest defenseman of his generation and possibly the league's best blueliner since the heyday of Bobby Orr. This year, the 38-year-old Lidstrom is almost a lock to win his sixth Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman, putting him two behind Orr and one in back of former Montreal great Doug Harvey.

If the Red Wings win it all this year, it will actually be Lidstrom's fourth time hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup. The other three times also came with the Red Wings (1997, 1998 and 2002) while Steve Yzerman was still Detroit's captain. Despite not wearing the "C" for Detroit, Lidstrom won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP in 2002, becoming the first and only European to have won that award.

It would be extremely fitting if Lidstrom becomes the first-ever European captain to win a Cup. After all, the Swede is considered by some to be the best-ever Euro to play in the NHL.

Lidstrom has also been named to the First All-Star Team (All NHL) nine times in his storied career and has registered 938 points (212 goals, 726 assists) in 1,252 regular season games. He also has 149 points (42g, 107a) in 212 career playoff tests, including three goals and 10 helpers this year.

There is also Lidstrom's amazing career plus-minus rating of plus-378 during the regular season. He's plus-36 all-time in the playoffs.

Lidstrom has already etched his name into hockey history as the greatest European defenseman in the history of the NHL, and it would be very surprising if he didn't get to claim another Cup this year.

If Detroit does succeed, don't expect Lidstrom to say he told you so. As one of the ultimate team players in the the game, he'll probably say that it means more to win Cup No. 4 as a Red Wing than it does to win it for the first time as a captain.

However Lidstrom decides to spin it, a Stanley Cup title for the Red Wings this year will also be a win for every European player who dreamed of making it in the NHL.

CROSBY'S REACH MUST EXTEND TO MOTOWN

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby provided Pittsburgh with two goals in its only win so far in the Stanley Cup finals, a 3-2 decision in Game 3 at Mellon Arena. The 20-year-old phenom then added an assist as the Pens lost Game 4 on their home ice.

Crosby, and the Penguins in general, struggled in Games 1 and 2 at Detroit, as the club was shut out in both contests by Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood. Obviously, that means Crosby has no points in his club's two tests in Detroit.

If the Penguins want to get the series back to Pittsburgh for Game 6, Crosby and the Pens better find a way to score in Motown.

The one issue that concerns Pittsburgh on the road in this series is the fact that the home team gets the final line change on all faceoffs. That means if Crosby's line or Evgeni Malkin's second unit is on the ice, Detroit head coach Mike Babcock can then insert his top line, which features Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, both of whom are finalists for the Selke Trophy this year as the league's top defensive forwards. Babcock could also make the most of the situation by getting his top defensive pairing of Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski on the ice at key junctures of the game.

While Crosby tries to find away to carry his offensive prowess to Detroit, Malkin will simply try to regain his scoring touch in general. Malkin scored 106 points during the regular season and is a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. However, the 21-year-old Russian hasn't notched a single point in the Cup finals, and has just one goal and one assist in his last eight playoff contests after posting 17 points (8g, 9a) in his first 10 tests of the 2008 postseason.

With their backs against the wall, the Penguins have no margin for error and need to win three straight to avoid elimination. Offense is what got Pittsburgh to this point and the team is counting on Crosby and Malkin to become prolific once again.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo


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