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Pens arrive early, Red Wings overdue

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After a month and a half of checking, fighting, scoring and saving their way through the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings have reached the 2008 Stanley Cup finals.

Both teams took impressive paths to the promised land this year, as the Penguins rolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 12-2 record and Detroit claimed the West championship by winning 12 of 16 games. The Red Wings even set a franchise record at one point with nine consecutive victories this postseason.

Although their paths through the 2008 playoffs were somewhat similar, a closer look at the franchises' recent history shows the clubs took divergent paths to get back to the Cup finals.

The Penguins are in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992, when Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr helped Pittsburgh celebrate its second of back- to-back world championships.

Following those consecutive Cup titles in the early 1990s, the Penguins had maintained a small measure of success by making the postseason for the next nine seasons. However, that well ran dry in the early part of this decade, as Pittsburgh sat out of the playoffs for four straight seasons from 2002-06.

Sidney Crosby is the youngest player in league history to score 100 points in a season.
That was before the Penguins franchise received a bit of good fortune by winning the NHL draft lottery in 2005. Pittsburgh surprised nobody by selecting centerman Sidney Crosby, the NHL's most sought-after prospect since Wayne Gretzky.

Crosby came into the NHL as an 18-year-old and lived up to the hype, becoming the youngest player in league history to score 100 points in a season. Despite the fact that "Sid the Kid" arrived early, the Pens still had a dismal season with just 58 points and finished last in the Eastern Conference.

Fast forward two years to the present, and Crosby is already a former winner of the Art Ross and Hart Trophies as the league's leading scorer and MVP, respectively, having won that hardware along with the Lester B. Pearson Award last season. Crosby also led Pittsburgh to its first playoff appearance since 2001 a year ago, but the run was short-lived as the Pens were ousted in the opening round by Ottawa.

This season, Crosby became the youngest captain in NHL annals, as he was awarded the "C" as 20 year old. Although he missed 29 games with a high ankle sprain during the 2007-08 regular season, Crosby made up for his absence by notching 21 points (4 goals, 17 assists) in 14 games during the conference playoffs.

The Penguins' resurgence is not only a result of the play of Crosby, but also a testament to Pittsburgh's superb drafting in recent years. The Pens' playoff drought from earlier this decade resulted in some high draft picks for Pittsburgh, and the franchise certainly made the most of those selections.

Before picking Crosby in 2005, the Penguins selected centerman Evgeni Malkin - a finalist for the Hart Trophy this year - with the second pick in 2004, and a year before that Pittsburgh took goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury No. 1 overall.

Malkin, who is still only 21 years old, is an efficient offensive weapon who kept the Penguins rolling without Crosby in the lineup during the regular season, while the 23-year-old backstop Fleury is starting to justify being the top pick in 2003.

Pittsburgh has other promising young stars on its roster like forward Jordan Staal and defensemen Kris Letang and Ryan Whitney. General manager Ray Shero has done a solid job of mixing in veteran talent by adding players like Marian Hossa, Petr Sykora, Gary Roberts and Hal Gill.

Still, the storyline in the Stanley Cup for the Penguins is and should be how Crosby led his team to the NHL's biggest stage in less than three years time. All that excitement has led hockey fans to wonder if a dynasty is coming together in the Steel City, even before Crosby and Co. have won Stanley Cup No. 1.

The Red Wings know a thing or two about dynasties, having won two straight Cups in 1997 and '98 and picking up a third title in six seasons in 2002.

In five seasons since last hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup, Detroit has won three Presidents' Trophy as the team with the best record in the NHL during the regular season, and averaged just over 114 points per year during that span. However, the Red Wings failed to make the Cup finals in any of those years, falling short of the always lofty expectations in the city known as "Hockeytown."

So what is different about this year's edition of the Detroit Red Wings compared to the underachieving teams of recent times?

First of all, the team has received steady goaltending from veteran Chris Osgood, who has played his best hockey since leading Detroit to a Stanley Cup in 1998. It's also the strongest goaltending the Red Wings have received since Dominik Hasek, future Hall-of-Famer and current backup to Osgood, anchored the Red Wings to their last title in 2002.

Also, the Red Wings have seen their top-two forwards, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, grow tremendously as players over the past few years. This season Datsyuk led Detroit with 97 points (31g, 66a) and Zetterberg was second with 92 points on 43 goals and 49 helpers.

Possibly even more impressive than Zetterberg and Datsyuk posting career-best offensive numbers was the fact that both players, who skate on the same line, were named as two of three finalists for the Selke Trophy, which is awarded annually to the NHL's best defensive forward.

Nicklas Lidstrom, who is arguably the best defenseman of his generation, has been a member of Detroit's last three Stanley Cup-winning teams, and leads a defensive corps that is deeper than some of those Red Wings championship teams.

Lidstrom, Detroit's captain, is again at the top of that list and is almost guaranteed a sixth Norris Trophy this season as the league's top defenseman. However, the Swedish superstar is aided this year in the postseason by new Red Wings like Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart as well as the steadily improving Niklas Kronwall.

As a side note, if the Red Wings happen to lose this year's Cup finals, and you hear somebody mention the fact that it was because Lidstrom is European and no player from Europe has ever captained an team to a Stanley Cup title, please call that person an idiot on my behalf. Lidstrom is one of the steadiest, smartest and hardest-working players in the league and the fact that he's not from North America has had nothing to do with recent playoff disappointment by the Red Wings.

Anyway, what do these differences between the current editions of the Red Wings and Penguins have to do with who will win Lord Stanley's Cup?

Well, obviously, Detroit has the greater playoff experience, but also is facing more pressure to bring a Stanley Cup back to its hometown fans. On the other hand, the Penguins' early arrival to the big stage could cause the team to be a bit too relaxed.

The unprecedented nature of Crosby's rapid ascendancy from hyped 18-year-old to captain of the Eastern Conference champions just three seasons into his career makes it difficult to gauge how well he can lead his team in the Cup finals. After all, Gretzky was nearly two years older than Sid when he first made it to the finals in 1983, and also had five full seasons of professional hockey under his belt. Gretzky and the Oilers lost to the New York Islanders in '83, but the "Great One" won the first of his four Cup titles the following year.

The ultimate question is, will Detroit get back to the top of the mountain or will Crosby and the Pens complete the first of what could be multiple championship seasons?

I'm leaning towards the later scenario, since Pittsburgh was my pick to win it all in the preseason and the Pens have yet to let me down in that regard. Still, the Red Wings were the NHL's best club in the regular season and appeared to be unstoppable at times during the playoffs as well.

In the end, it will be either the old lions or the young cubs to win it all, but with these storylines, the NHL can't lose.

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