By Paul Ladewski
The Stanley Cup is the most difficult prize to capture in professional team sports, many people will tell you, and the Penguins will realize as much in the next few days.
Certainly, the Penguins could have hand-picked a lesser opponent then the Detroit Red Wings, the most complete package of talent, experience and cohesiveness in the league.
But if the two teams had to meet for the second time in as many years, then the Penguins couldn’t have hoped for a better time to do it.
The Red Wings enter the series with health issues, as defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Kris Draper have been at less than full strength in recent weeks.
What’s more, the schedule that calls for the series to open with back-to-back games this weekend favors the Penguins, the younger and more rested of the two teams.
This is a much more winnable series for an older, wiser, deeper Penguins team than it was a year ago.
Here’s the formula to pull it off:
Apply pressure early and often – The league doesn’t keep track of time of possession, but puck control will be crucial to the outcome of the series. If the Penguins forecheck and cycle the puck aggressively, the majority of the game will be played in the attack zone. In turn, that will neutralize the Red Wings puck-control game, which is a primary reason for their success.
The Red Wings have age spots, especially on the back line. The more frequently that Lidstrom , 39, Brian Rafalski , 35, and Brad Stuart, 30, are tested at their own end, the more likely they are to wear down as the series progresses.
Be clutch – Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury can’t be expected to shut down one of the most potent offenses in the league. He should be expected to make big saves at big moments, something that he has done consistently in recent years.
It may not be necessary for Fleury to stand on his head in this series. Or even execute hand-stands, for that matter. But the Flower has to be more consistent than he was in the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago, when he allowed 17 goals in six games.
Get physical with Marian Hossa from start to finish – Not because Hossa bolted the ‘Burgh as a free agent last summer, but because he could be the most important Red Wings forward in the series.
If Datsyuk continues to be a non-factor in the playoffs, Hossa will be counted on to step up as the primary goal-scorer for his team. Like most finesse players, Hossa doesn’t like contact. If the Penguins keep him in check, then their chances improve considerably.
Protect the paint area – No team crashes the net better than the Red Wings, who score a high percentage of their goals in the slot area. It’s imperative that the Penguins defensemen be physical and hold their ground in front of Fleury, which is easier said than done against the likes of Daniel Cleary, Johan Franzen and Thomas Holstrom among others.
Stay disciplined – The Red Wings have one of the most lethal power-play units around. And it has been on a serious roll in the playoffs. If the Penguins stay out of the penalty box, however, they won’t have to deal with it.
Pure and simple, the Penguins have to avoid unnecessary stick and delay-of-game penalties, something they did very well in the last two playoff series.