[By Jason Ioli]
Alright everyone, lock and load because the Stanley Cup Finals are about to begin.
I have to say this looks like it could be one of the most competitive playoff series is a long time. The Penguins and the Red Wings match up so well I am having trouble deciding who is going to win. One thing is for sure. If both teams play to their potential, the series is going six or seven games. Who comes out on top will depend on who plays their game correctly and who gets the bounces to go their way. Unfortunately, bounces are bounces and there is nothing that can be done to change them. One day the puck hits the post and it’s a goal and the next day it hits the post and goes into the corner. I am not a believer in the hockey gods, but I and certain that there are hockey gremlins out there. They love to make pucks that have been shot around the end boards ricochet out into the slot or make long slow shots on goal hop off the ice for no reason and find a way past a goalie. Just ask Vesa Toskala.
So that means this is going to come down to who follows their coaches game plan. But what exactly does that mean? What do they need to do to get in advantage over the opponent? Everyone will say that the Penguins need Crosby, Malkin, and Fleury to keep playing like superstars and they will need good defense and back checking from the likes of Staal, Scuderi, Orpik and Cooke. And the Red Wings need to keep the Pens top scorers in check, control the puck, and get in front of the goalie for screens and redirections. Well, anyone that follows hockey even a little knows that. What it is going to come down to is who wins the little battles in each game. Who makes the plays away from the puck that keep their team in the game or create breakouts that lead to goals.
That being said…what do the Penguins need to do to get their revenge and put down these pesky Detroit Red Wings????? Allow me to explain.
1. Forecheck, Forecheck, Forecheck! The Red Wings move the puck quickly, make crisp passes and devour teams who give them open ice. The Penguins need to keep the pressure on the Wings in their end, get in the passing lanes, and not let them break out unmolested. If they are lucky, this will also create some turnovers, which are always nice. The Pens had great success with this against the Caps and the Canes, but they will need to kick it up a notch against the Wings.
2. Poke check, Poke check, Poke check! The most important way to disrupt the Wings offensive juggernaut is to slow it down. I don’t mean slow their skating, but keep them from moving the puck faster than the Pens defense can catch up. During the last two series the Pens were outstanding at poke checking opponents entering their zone or trying to cycle the puck down low. If they can do this to the Wings it will help keep their offense in check.
3. Check, Check, Check! The Pens need to be physical with the Wings. I don’t mean take runs at them and get unnecessary penalties. I mean finish checks and, most importantly, keep the front of the net clear. The Wings are infamous for always having someone planted in front of the goalie and way too many teams just leave them there. This led to the Blackhawks demise in the Western Conference Finals. They get a lot of goals off screens and deflections. So the Pens must take the body on these guys and get them out of there. If Fleury can see the puck, he can stop it.
4. SHOOT THE PUCK! Yeah, I know, this sounds obvious. But what I am getting at is that the Pens have to pepper Osgood and get him to give up some rebounds. This will keep the Wings occupied in their own zone longer and increase the pressure on Osgood. He is one of the best at controlling his rebounds, but he will let some go. Also, the Pens need to shoot high on him. Osgood is great at covering the low part of his net and he will stop every shot that slides across the ice. So when those juicy rebounds do show up, get ‘em up high.
As the drop of the puck slowly approaches, I have this feeling that I never really had during last year’s finals…confidence. Looking at this series, I am actually confident that the Penguins can win this series. It will most certainly not be easy, although there is a place in the back of my mind envisioning a sweep of the Wings. I keep it there not because I think there is much of a chance of it happening, but because I would LOVE for the Stanley cup to be hoisted during a game NOT being aired on NBC. But I can get into that more later.