Yes, it's rematch time in the Stanley Cup Final, as the Detroit Red Wings look to become the first back-to-back winner in 25 years, while the Pittsburgh Penguins want revenge for last year's loss to the Wings.
By any estimation, this is a battle of the NHL's titans, who have survived the grueling marathon through both the regular season and three rounds of playoffs.
The Red Wings defeated Columbus, Anaheim and Chicago to take a place on hockey's center stage, while the Penguins ousted Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina to reclaim Eastern supremacy.
The Final spotlight will shine brightly on the Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two young superstars who have been dominant during the postseason. Both are tied for the League lead with 28 points and Crosby holds the edge in goals, 14-12.
Not to be outdone are the Red Wings, sporting goalie Chris Osgood and his stingy 2.06 goals-against average and 12 wins.
One of the great sidelights to this series is Marian Hossa, who played with the Penguins in the 2008 Final and then signed with the Red Wings. He now takes on his former teammates looking for his first Stanley Cup.
So, settle back and enjoy. This is gonna be a doozy.
Despite playing without Hart Trophy finalist Pavel Datsyuk for the final three games of the Western Conference Finals, the Red Wings still proved to be too much for the Chicago Blackhawks.
While all the talk will be about other top guns such as Henrik Zetterberg and Marian Hossa, Detroit's depth is the reason why it earned a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Newfoundland native Daniel Cleary has been sensational this postseason and scored his eighth goal in Wednesday's 2-1 win against Chicago. Johan Franzen always steps up his game at this time of year and leads the team with 10 goals.
But it doesn't end there. Valtteri Filppula picked up his game in Datsyuk's absence, and Tomas Holmstrom is always a valuable weapon in front of the net. Let's not forget Darren Helm, who has blinding speed and scored the overtime winner that sent the Hawks home for the summer.
This is the unquestioned strength of the Penguins. How could it not be with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin terrorizing opponents? Crosby leads all players in playoff goals this spring with 14 in 16 games. Malkin has 28 points, tying Crosby for the League lead. Together they have combined for 56 points in these playoffs, providing a one-two punch that can't be matched in the 2009 postseason.
But the Penguins are more than just their dynamic duo. At 38, Bill Guerin is a 400-goal scorer who has found the fountain of youth in Pittsburgh after a late-season trade. He's enjoying the best postseason of his career (7-7-14) has scored some timely goals and combines with Chris Kunitz to do the dirty work along the boards and in front that makes Crosby so effective.
Jordan Staal has developed into a shutdown center who can negate the most talented forward on the other team. Just ask Jordan's brother, Carolina's Eric Staal. Eric saw a healthy dose of Jordan in the first two games of the series when Pittsburgh had the last change -- and he emerged without a goal and a minus-4 rating.
How deep are the Penguins? Consider that Miroslav Satan, a player with nine 20-goal seasons in his NHL career, plays on the fourth line. And by the way, during the Eastern Conference Finals, he usually played with either Crosby or Malkin as the Pens went with just 11 forwards.
The Wings' success in this series could very well depend on the health of Nicklas Lidstrom. The six-time Norris Trophy winner and 2008-09 finalist has not played since Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, although coach Mike Babcock has been encouraged by Lidstrom's progress. Always in the right position, Lidstrom will be crucial against superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Against Chicago, though, Detroit proved there is still plenty on its blue line. Brad Stuart has emerged as a highly reliable defenseman who can log first-line minutes. Brian Rafalski is solid at both ends of the ice and is always willing to contribute offensively.
Then there's Niklas Kronwall, who never shies away from using his body. Chicago's Martin Havlat found that out the hard way in a Game 3 hit that really set the tone for the remainder of the series. Jonathan Ericsson, who has stepped in admirably during these playoffs, had emergency surgery on Wednesday for acute appendicitis. His status for Game 1 is unknown.
Others who can contribute on Detroit's blue line are 47-year-old Chris Chelios, who nearly scored in overtime on Wednesday. Brett Lebda had two assists in the victory, while Derek Meech stepped in for Game 5 and didn't look out of place.
With all the focus on Pittsburgh's high-octane offense, it is no wonder that the team's defense corps is unsung. But after the playoff run it has had this postseason, that's clearly an injustice.
Let's start with Pittsburgh's best all-round defensemen. Despite playing the entire Eastern Conference Finals with a wonky knee, Sergei Gonchar proved he can do it all. He runs Pittsburgh's potent power play from the point and is a keen distributor of the puck in the transition game.
But the Penguins have some other pretty good defenders, too. Unheralded Rob Scuderi has elevated his game to the point where he has to be considered an elite shutdown defender. In each of the past two rounds, he has been asked to counter the other team's best forward -- Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Carolina's Eric Staal. Scuderi is usually partnered with Hal Gill.
Mark Eaton, injured last season, is healthy again and does all the little things right. Brooks Orpik is the intimidating physical presence that every team needs, and Kris Letang is rapidly progressing as Gonchar's understudy. If the Pens go with seven defensemen, as they did in the previous round, veteran Philippe Boucher is added to the mix.
One has to wonder if he'll ever get the credit he deserves, but Chris Osgood just keeps on winning. The 36-year-old netminder, who has 389 regular-season victories, earned postseason win No. 71 on Wednesday night when Darren Helm scored in overtime to beat Chicago. Osgood made 30 saves in the win and preserved a scoreless tie with a flurry of stops in the second period.
He'll have his hands full in this series against the high-octane Penguins, but didn't he last year, too?
On most nights, Pittsburgh's offense assures that Marc-Andre Fleury doesn't have to be perfect. But that doesn't mean that Fleury can't make the big saves -- check out the stop he made against Alex Ovechkin early in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Fleury has become very adept at making the saves that must be made to allow the Penguins to dictate the pace of play for the majority of the game.
Fleury, who allowed just nine goals in four games against Carolina, has matured since swallowing the bitter pill of losing in last year's Stanley Cup Final. He is a much more mentally tough goalie than he was when he faced Detroit last spring. His unbridled optimism and blinding smile have left the Penguins little choice but to have complete and unquestioned belief in their goalie.
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