Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Red Wings Win the Stanley Cup! | Free Press pregame, in-game, and postgame analysis |

Free Press special writer Anthony Fenech analyzes the Wings-Penguins Game Six:


Roughly 48 hours ago, Red Wings fans were buzzing with anticipation over what was fully expected to be a night that celebrated the Wings 11th Stanley Cup championship. Fans around the state ordered a pizza or two and tuned into their televisions, while others of the Hockeytown faithful packed bars, hoping to spill into the streets hours later for a unique party that happens only once in a while – the outpouring of joy based on the uncertainty of its return.

The victory was a foregone conclusion. “The Wings just can’t lose at home, right?” an imaginary person – representing Hockeytown’s collective mindset – would mutter before Game Five. Six periods later, the never-say-die Pittsburgh Penguins gave a definitive answer to that question: Wrong.

The youngsters from the Steel City yet again defied this series’ odds yet again, with another riveting display of perseverance, seemingly playing through the lyrics of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”:

“I get knocked down, but I’ll get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down!”

After a tentative and shaky start – having got caught up in the moment – led to a two-goal deficit, the Wings laid the wood to the Penguins the rest of the way, outshooting, outhitting, and outchancing the visitors to the tune of a mere 35 seconds separating the Winged-Wheelers and destiny.

But the scrappy Penguins pushed one past Chris Osgood to tie the game and after two overtimes of being outplayed, caught a break – Jiri Hudler’s blood-drawing high-sticking penalty – and cashed in, when Peter Sykora lit the lamp just minutes into the period and seconds into the man advantage. Suddenly, with one flip of the wrist, the series became very interesting.

The young, fresh legs of the Penguins were heading back to their comfort zone – Mellon Arena, where they are 9-1 this postseason – while the Wings sent a sell-out crowd filing through the concourse disappointed, their heads hung with a cloud of disbelief lingering above.

But ironically, heading to Pittsburgh could be the best thing that happened to this team after such a heartbreaking game. Wings coach Mike Babcock called the group a bunch of “Nervous Nellies” in the first half of last game, trying to do too much in front of a home crowd that expected – not hoped – to win the championship on its home ice.

Gone is that pressure now, the team focusing on playing within themselves and the fact that they have closed out each of their past three series on the road.

Young legs or not, each of these teams is physically drained. The eventual victor of this game is going to be the team that wins the mental battle.

Although the pressure of winning at home has escaped the Wings, pressure as a whole is still squarely on their shoulders and the deciding factor will be if they play like it is or not. Pittsburgh was supposed to lose in four games, then five. Before last game, who knows if they thought they had a realistic shot to win this thing, but now I guarantee you they do.

In each of the first two games I blogged for you, I picked Wings victories and wound up empty-handed. So although I might not really mean it – wink, wink – I’ll give Pittsburgh a 3-2 victory on home ice tonight, creating a deciding Game Seven on Saturday.

Look for Evgeni Malkin to have his breakout game and build off his assist on Sykora’s game-winning goal, his first point this series.

More notes

Sergei Gonchar told CBC that he has no limitations tonight, minutes or otherwise.

Brian Rafalski, who was on the 2005 Cup-winning New Jersey Devils that squandered a Game Five clincher on their home ice, said “We need to refocus and come out and play a great game.” He also said the Wings need to have a better start.

Before warm-ups, pucks were arranged in three simple letters on the Wings bench: “W-I-N.”

Former goalie Kelly Rhudey – playing through a similar situation in the 1991 finals – said Marc-Andre Fleury would feel great the first ten minutes but his energy would decline after. “It’s all downhill from there,” he said.

Don Cherry believes the pressure is on Pittsburgh, contrary to popular belief, noting the Penguins didn’t look as loose and calm in warm-ups as in Game Five, similar to Dallas in the Western Conference Finals.

The fans at Mellon Arena are rowdy early, starting the “Os-good!” chants early, right before the national anthem.

First period

Val Filppula wins the opening draw and the Wings start their feel-you-out attack, throwing pucks at the net. Fleury plays the puck twice behind the net – Johan Franzen giving him a nice love tap that puts him on the ice the second time – the physicality so prevalent in the series again visible early in the game.

Osgood records his first big save point-blank on a Sykora wrist shot after a giveaway in the Detroit zone. Andres Lilja looks very slow right now, having turned the puck over once and almost twice, giving Pittsburgh life on the attack.

Darryl Sydor goes off for interference at 4:17 and the Wings are on the power play, primed for the first goal of the game.

Goooooooal!!! Brian Rafalski scores 45 seconds into the power play, beating a screened Fleury top shelf glove side. Henrik Zetterberg, almost losing his footing, kept the play alive, shuffling it to Rafalski who netted the first goal with the help of who else – Tomas Holmstrom – whose big body was in front of Fleury. 1-0, Wings, at the 15-minute mark of the first.

After looking at the replay, Rafalski's shot appeared to have deflected off the right leg of Pittsburgh defenseman Hal Gill.

Dallas Drake and Kris Draper each get whistled for penalties about a minute apart for charging and roughing. The early energy is good, but as these two penalties dictate, the Wings need to settle down just a tad bit. Pittsburgh on a two-man advantage for a minute and a half …

Detroit kills off the penalties, paying close attention to Malkin and his deadly slap shot at the point, flapping up and down off the ice to block the shot – an embodiment of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Down to the left of Osgood in Detroit’s zone and amidst a semi-scrum, Adam Hall gets his lumber on Nick Lidstrom’s face – not drawing any blood – for the Wings second power play of the game.

Pittsburgh kills the penalty without winning any style points – the Wings nearly taking a two-goal lead after getting a few pucks right around the crease within slapping distance of a second goal.

Datsyuk nearly creates another goal through his wizardry, storming into the Pittsburgh zone, camping out in the corner to the left of Fleury and feeding Zetterberg on a one-timer who sailed it wide left.

The period ends relatively uneventful, the teams trading the puck back-and-forth in the neutral zone with no real scoring chances.

After 20 minutes, shots are 9-8 Detroit, hits 10-8 Pittsburgh, but the score is 1-0. It does seem as if the Wings are playing without the weight of their home crowd on their shoulder, playing more crisp and loose with good execution.

Don Cherry, looking as sharp as ever at halftime, wearing a white suit speckled with purple, green, red and white flowers, gushing over Gary Roberts leadership on the young Penguins.

Second period

After a Pittsburgh’s long stretch pass creates an opportunity, Lilja slashes Ryan Malone on the shot and takes a two-minute penalty.

On the ensuing advantage, Malone nearly deflects a shot from the point in. Malone, who broke his nose for the second time this series in Game Five, is doing work so far.,

Pittsburgh has a good, aggressive power play, but during the man-advantage, Brad Stuart lays a good bodycheck on Sidney Crosby, who keels over and leans on his stick until he makes it to the bench. On the bench, he looks very frustrated, tossing a water bottle backhand over his right shoulder in disgust.

With just under 12 minutes in the second, Samuelsson fires a wrist shot from just outside the right circle. Filppula – for the record, he’s my Wing – overpowers and beats Brooks Orpik to the ill-advised rebound Fleury allows. Filpulla backhands it into the net for a two-goal Red Wing lead, just about half an hour of play away from the Cup.

Going to a television timeout at 6:41, Pittsburgh nearly connects on their best opportunity of the second period, with Crosby feeding a Pittsburgh defenseman from behind the net. Osgood makes the save and the defense clears the rebound. Crosby is still making his presence known even after failing to record a shot thus far.

Osgood makes a huge save, stoning Gary Roberts as he stared an open left side of the net in the face. Osgood, on the ice, leans over to his right and makes a great stick save.

After Datsyuk is called for interference with about five and a half minutes left, Malkin tallies his first goal of the series, firing a slap shot in from Osgood’s left just inside the circle. The Penguins needed that goal in the worst way, waking not only the Mellon Arena crowd, but also Malkin. Red Wings 2, Penguins 1. 4:30 left in the second.

A slew of penalties follow. First, Roberts goes off for high-sticking and the penalty is killed by Pittsburgh, then Franzen and Orpick go off with matching roughing calls during a post-stoppage scrum.

Very similar to the Wings last game, Pittsburgh scores late in the 2nd period, igniting their crowd and taking the momentum. The goal seemed to have given them a liftoff of sorts to finish the period, showing more speed and finishing more checks.

Both teams are relatively even statistically, but that Pittsburgh goal, allowing them to crawl back in from what looked like a one-goal knockout, was huge.

Kirk Maltby, at intermission, says the Wings don’t need to panic after the goal and keep to the game plan.

Third period

The Wings take the ice in the third 20 minutes away from the Stanley Cup, which, compared to last game’s 35 seconds away, is an eternity.

Pittsburgh is excited about possibly having Malkin back on board, Malone calling the goal, “Huge.” An update on Crosby’s injury: He did an interview with NHL International and said he wasn’t hurt, but “Momentarily winded.” Nice. I like the choice of words. Now do I believe them? Not really.

Red Wings speedster Darren Helm left in the second and was seen riding the bike, no word on if he’ll return or not.

Franzen dances to the goal and pushes a backhand just wide and is promptly greeted with a trip into the right post, knocking the net off, courtesy of Orpik.

Ohhhh! Pavel Datsyuk almost stuffs one home after a long shot deflects off the boards behind Fleury and is misplayed by a Pittsburgh defender.

No real scoring chances here with eight minutes played in the third, Detroit playing more conservatively – and there’s a goal? A goal???

A goal!!! Zetterberg walked in from the right of Fleury, took a wrist shot that traveled between Gonchar’s legs. Fleury appeared to make the stop – I heard a weird cheer from the crowd, which is now confirmed as Detroit fans – but the puck trickled behind him ever so slowly. The puck looked like it was going to stop but Fleury sat on it, giving it enough to get over the line.

Behind the net, a referee emphatically signaled it was a goal, giving the Wings a two-goal lead and Zetterberg a second-wind for the Conn Smythe race, which is now about 10 minutes away.

Cleary whiffs on a 2-on-1, not getting good wood on the puck and missing wide right, an opportunity to seal the Cup’s case back up for a while. Six minutes to go and the nerves are creeping back into my stomach …

Detroit is playing a cat-and-mouse game with the puck – as expected down the stretch – the elder, wily veterans preventing the young Penguins from putting together any semblance of offense. Two and a half left until Detroit hoists her on the Mellen Arena ice …

Two to go and I can’t even muster enough confidence to say this game is over because of what happened yesterday. Hudler just called for hooking Jordan Staal, giving Pittsburgh a power play under two left, and Michel Therrien has to be thinking about pulling Fleury for a two-man advantage.

My god, those pesky Penguins. After Cleary blocks Gonchar’s first shot from the point, Gonchar slaps one that deflects off Hossa’s stick into the back of the net. Thoughts of Game Five have to be circling in the Wings head right now and I’m officially a nervous wreck, feeling as if I’ve seen this script before. 3-2 Wings with a minute and a half left. Come on, clock, keep moving!!!!!

Babcock takes Detroit’s timeout before a draw in the Wings zone and the camera moves upstairs, showing Ken Holland, Scotty Bowman and Steve Yzerman – all impeccably dressed – sweating this one out. What a great picture right there.

WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS!!!!! What an amazing finish though. Pittsburgh just wouldn’t go away, nearly tying the game with less than a second, a shot off Osgood drawing a rebound that Hossa nearly tipped in with time running out.

With a mob around Osgood and sticks and gloves littering the Wings zone, Malkin – the Penguins young star who disappeared for five games of the six this series – is quietly kneeling in the Pittsburgh zone, wondering perhaps what slipped through his fingers.

Darren McCarty – not dressed but on the ice – oh, the emotions that must be going through his head, leans in and has words with his longtime friend, Osgood, their third cup won together …

After the traditional post-series handshake, the Penguins and their fans exchange classy moves, the team saluting their fans, sticks-up, leaving the ice with a standing ovation. The Red Wings, ready to rock with Lord Stanley, give the Penguins an applause exiting the ice.

Gary Bettman presents Zetterberg -- one of the game’s best two-way players – the Conn Smythe Trophy, for MVP of the playoffs. Congrats, Hank, though for the record, my vote that didn’t count was for Osgood. This team looked possibly dead in the water until he took over the helm in the Nashville series.

Hoisting the Cup

“Nick Lidstrom, come get the Cup,” Bettman says.

A beaming Lidstrom skates over -- the first European-born captain to win the Cup and one of the most underappreciated athletes in Detroit history – and takes the Holy Grail for a lap around enemy ice, the crowd still full, watching one of the greatest spectacles in sports.

Lidstrom – sporting a million-dollar smile – hands it to Dallas Drake, a 16-year old veteran who has played more than 1,000 games and has been dreaming about hoisting the 35-pound silver chalice since boyhood. This time is his.

Drake then gives Lord Stanley to the first Newfoundlander to win the Stanley Cup, Dan Cleary, who grew up in a such a small town that it makes big things like this seem designated for a storybook. But a storybook ending is the only thing that can sum up his seconds with the Cup.

Cleary – with seemingly his whole town watching from home – hands it to the ageless Chris Chelios, the 46-year-old crossing paths with Lord Stanley for the second time in his Hall of Fame career, both with the Red Wings.

Chelios gives it to your Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Henrik Zetterberg, a young star that joined the Wings a year after their last Cup in 2002, having blossomed into a dominant scorer, defender, and leader – an assistant captain widely regarded as the team’s next captain. Here’s hoping that this is one of many for Hank.

Zetterberg hands it to Kris Draper, his wide smile flanked by thick, bright red facial hair, raising the Cup for the fourth time, a charter member of the famed Grind Line, pumping the Cup like it’s the 1997.

Draper hands it to Chris Osgood, now a three-time Cup winner, his second as a starter. After being shipped out and back into town – all the while holding down the city’s second-toughest job for over a decade – this Cup must feel so good. The childish smile reminding us of how far he’s came since being a youngster with his head buried in his hands, tears flowing in front of his locker.

Osgood’s soft hands give the Cup to the magical Pavel Datsyuk’s lighting-quick hands, a young Russian with broken English who learned just what this organization is all about very early – winning a Stanley Cup his rookie year in 2002 on a Hall of Fame team.

Datsyuk then gives the Cup to Kirk Maltby, another grind-liner that helped break a 42-year old drought, whom the Wings acquired for a dollar from Edmonton early in his career. Just a hunch, but he might be worth a little bit more now, living as a four-time Stanley Cup champion.

Maltby hands it to defenseman Brian Rafalski, a hometown product that netted the Wings first goal of the night. He won a cup with the Devils in 2005, but this one in Detroit must taste so much sweeter.

Rafalski gives it to The Mule, Johan Franzen, who literally was fire on ice this postseason with 13 goals – even after missing five games in the Conference Finals – an emerging star since he stepped into a starting role late in the season.

Franzen then transfers the silver to Valtteri Filpulla, beaming with the trophy high above his shoulders – reminding one of a young Sergei Fedorov.

Filppula hands it to defenseman Brad Stuart, whom the Wings acquired at the deadline from Los Angeles, surely thanking the heavens above, the cross-country move ultimately resulting his first taste of the Stanley Cup.

Lord Stanley then passes through the hands of defensemen Nicklas Kronwall and Brett Lebda, and forward Jiri Hudler, the first time raising the Cup for all three.

With a rousing cheer from his teammates, another ageless veteran, Dominik Hasek, lifts his second Cup – sporting a backwards hat and a priceless smile – making his demotion in the first round seem years ago and miles out of mind at this moment.

Somewhere in the euphoria on the ice, Darren McCarty, a long-time fan favorite in Detroit, raises his fourth Stanley Cup, and oh, what must be going through his mind at the moment. The Red Wings family gave him another shot after bouts with substance abuse problems, and although not dressed for tonight’s game, everyone in the city had to have enjoyed that.

After the remaining reserves take their turns fulfilling a lifelong dream, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock takes the Cup and lifts it high above his head, and along with it, two years of scrutiny, with fans wondering if the Wings regular season prowess would ever translate into a world championship. Finally, he’s justified.

After Babcock, the Cup is in the hands of a man who can practically claim co-ownership of the trophy, Scotty Bowman, now a Red Wings consultant. Bowman has aged since his 2002 swan song, evident by the struggle to lift it like he could six years back.

And finally, Ken Holland – the best general manager in all of the land – raises his fourth cup, this one much of a statement to the work he has done with this organization, turning the Dead Wings of the early 1990’s into a modern-day dynasty.

As the ceremonial victory laps wind down, Lidstrom takes the Cup for yet another Detroit Red Wings championship photo, Chelios sitting directly beside Lord Stanley, with owner Mike Illitch displaying four fingers for four championships.

And with that goes the Red Wings 11th Stanley Cup, a victory sure to set off a night of celebrating in Downtown Detroit, culminating with a parade down Woodward into Hart Plaza later in the week.

This was a team many thought too soft to make it through the grueling journey of the playoffs, with too many skilled Europeans and not enough bruising players. They sure proved that theory wrong, hanging on until the final second to win sport’s greatest trophy.

It was a display of perseverance, matched almost toe-to-toe by their younger opponent from Pittsburgh, and in the end the series turned from a potential blowout to the high-flying, fast-paced matchup we all expected, peaking with Game Five’s three-overtime classic at the Joe. And on to a champagne shower I go. After all, as we’ve learned around here, championships don’t come every day. Party on!!!

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