This is a special Saturday in almost-June: I’ll have John Walton’s call of game 1 of the Calder Cup finals piped in on my laptop while the Wings and Pens renew their finals matchup of a year ago on my TV. I can’t offer a Calder finals preview for a number of reasons, foremost among them: I haven’t seen the Manitoba Moose play hockey this year. I do know they have Cory Schneider in net, and he was judged to be the best goalie of the season this year in the ‘A.’ So the matchup between Schneider and Michal Neuvirth is a potential classic. I also know that the Moose play in a big arena (like 15,000 seats), and that the Winnipeg community apparently is treating this Calder Cup as a quasi dress rehearsal for hosting an NHL team one day. Maybe soon. But it’s a best-vs.best finals in the ‘A,’ with both the Bears and Moose winning 50 games during the regular season and both no. 1 seeds advancing to the finals.
The interesting thing about the NHL’s finals is that while neither no.1 seed made it through there is I think the universal view that the two best teams in hockey are, beginning tonight, competing for Lord Stanley’s cup. I also find this peculiar and interesting: a seeming majority of prognostications predict the Penguins to win it. I don’t see it. Here’s why:
- There is no tandem in hockey today as dynamic and lethal as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That’s indisputable. But while I like Pittsburgh’s roster generally, I still see it as unbalanced and lacking in depth — particularly when juxtaposed to Detroit’s roster. I’m sure the Wings respect Bill Guerin and maybe even Miro Satan; I don’t think they’re frightened of either one, however.
- Pavel Datsyuk is the greatest player in the world today in terms of impacting both ends of the rink. He is far and away the best defensive forward in this series. If he is able to moderately contain either Crosby or Malkin — slow them down just a wee bit — the Wings prevail, I think. Pittsburgh has to have both of their big studs have a brilliant, dominant series to make it a series, I say.
- Maybe Nicklas Lidstrom is at long last showing signs of aging, and succumbing to injuries in a way he never has before, but he’s going to play, and if he’s 60 percent of his normal self he’s still better than any blueliner on the Pens.
- Detroit, under Bowman and again under Mike Babcock, plays a lethal five-man game of puck possession and flow. Aesthetically, it’s a beautiful to watch. Pittsburgh, for the very depth reason I cited above, has no answer for it unless, again, Crosby and Malkin are skated upwards of 30 minutes, Marc Andre Fleury stands on his head, and the Wings really get beat up and lose key personnel this weekend.
- Is there a distinct advantage for either side in net? I don’t think so, and for Pittsburgh to win, I think there needs to be; as in, they need the Chris Osgood of last autumn to replace the one we’ve seen since March. Odds of that happening? Not real good.
- Precious little has been written about the matchup behind the benches. Mike Babcock is, from my vantage, one of the best coaching minds in the business, and perhaps the best coach in the game. Dan Bylsma appears to be a fine young coach. But he’s not yet through a full first season in the NHL. This appears to me to be a real and pivotal mismatch.
For the life of me I can’t fathom what all the fuss was late this week about having the Stanley Cup finals start today and continue tomorrow. Back-to-back games — unheard of in the NHL? Even in the postseason? I think not. It’s a marquee finals — perhaps the most anticipated since the Oilers and Isles of the mid-1980s. Get it on prime time network TV on the weekend, of course.
I do think Pittsburgh will win two of its three home games, and steal one in Detroit.
Wings in seven.