Sunday, May 31, 2009

THN at the Stanley Cup: A slice of Sidney for everybody

By Ryan Dixon
2009-05-31 14:46:00
The Hockey News

DETROIT - Already engaged by a number of Detroit players, Sidney Crosby had no interest in picking another battle with the Red Wings coach.

Hours before his Pittsburgh Penguins try to even a Stanley Cup final series Detroit leads 1-0, Crosby was told Wings bench boss Mike Babcock referred to him as a “head-hunter” based on the way he went after adversary Henrik Zetterberg in Game 1.

Thoughts, Kid?

“I'm not going to get involved with the games,” Crosby said. “He can say whatever he wants. I don't think I've been known as a head-hunter throughout my career. He's the first one ever to say that so it's pretty interesting stuff.”

Sidney Crosby handles the puck against Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

It’s little wonder Crosby has no interest in another battlefront – he’s already got enough on his plate with the aforementioned encounters with Zetterberg, his task of deceiving this generation’s best defenseman and an emerging tryst with Wings grinder Kirk Maltby.

Crosby gave the veteran Detroit winger just a little jab on the foot while exiting the ice after Game 1, something that likely caught more people than just Maltby by surprise. “I thought he was hitting Homer (Tomas Holmstrom) to be honest with you and I don’t know why,” Maltby chuckled. “I don’t think I said a word to him before that, it was after the little slash. It wasn’t hard or anything like that, it was just the fact he did it that caught me off guard.”

Crosby offered his take on the tap: “He was just talking and I just slashed him. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary that's never happened before.”

Head-hunting, slashing unsuspecting guys in the foot: Are we seeing a new side of Sidney Crosby emerge? Hardly. First of all, by Maltby’s own admission there wasn’t much malice behind the slash. Secondly, Crosby has always played with an intense streak that’s bound to spill over at times.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, there are clear traces of admiration in Babcock’s voice when he talks about Crosby getting after his players, particularly Zetterberg. It’s almost like the fan that still resides inside the coach is delighted by what’s unfolding between his top center and potential No. 1 nightmare.

“To me the battle they had going last night between Zetterberg and Crosby was a great battle,” Babcock said. “I thought he went head-hunting right off the hop. His ability to respond was good. I think that’s the game within the game. If you’re a hockey purist and you like superstars who bring it, that’s a nice matchup.”

Of course when he’s not trying to lay licks on Zetterberg or stirring it up with Matlby, Crosby has to deal with the all-world shutdown abilities of Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom.

The Wings captain assessed the Game 1 head-to-head and talked about what needs to get done in order to limit the damage done by Crosby’s line.

“I thought we did an OK job,” Lidstrom said of the opening contest. “He’s a great player, he’s going to get some chances and he had some chances. As long as we’re trying to stay above him, try to close the gap as a defenseman where he can’t come with speed.”

A few other things to keep in mind heading into Game 2:

• Much has been made of playing games on back-to-back nights, but don’t forget it’s very common for teams to play on consecutive nights in different cities during the regular season.“Usually you travel after a game like last night and you’ve got to play somewhere else,” Lidstrom said. “Now we’re at home and that helps, it makes it a lot easier coming out to play that second game.”

• Babcock said Detroit wouldn’t get any bodies back for Game 2, meaning no Pavel Datsyuk (who didn’t skate Sunday morning) and no Kris Draper (who did). The way muckers Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader are contributing right now, you wonder if the Wings’ on-ice fortunes will have to change for Draper to draw back in at all.

• Detroit owned Pittsburgh in the faceoff circle in Game 1, winning 71 percent of the pucks dropped. Pens coach Dan Bylsma needs that to change, especially given so much of the Wings’ puck-possession game is built on, well, having the puck.“We have a game plan,” he said. “We know – we’ve studied what those players will do in the faceoff circle. We went over those reminders (Sunday).”

THN is on the road following the Stanley Cup final and will file daily reports until a champion is crowned. To read other entries, click HERE. Also, check out's regular video roundtable, the Shootout for updates from both Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Related Links
THN at the Cup: Ozzie awesome
Datsyuk, Draper out Game 2 Playoff Center
Det-Pit Tale of the Tape
Off-ice mind games brewing
All Playoff Blogs

Lemieux discusses life, ownership and Crosby

Sunday, May 31, 2009
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

Penguins owner Mario Lemieux talks to members of the media for one of the few times this postseason.

DETROIT -- Mario Lemieux ran down the list.

"My back's always going to be an issue for me, and I had two hip surgeries," the Penguins' co-owner and Hall of Fame center said last night. "So my golf is not as good as it used to be. I can't turn as much as I used to."

They weren't complaints. Just the facts of life for a 43-year old who played hockey at its highest level. He won two Stanley Cup championships and is getting a chance to live through long playoff runs from different perspective.

Lemieux, who rarely grants interviews, flashed a lot of smiles during a news conference last night before the Penguins and Detroit met in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.

It was 10 years ago that Lemieux helped to bring the Penguins out of bankruptcy and turn them into a winner again -- part of that time as a player after he came out of retirement, but mostly as an owner.

"I knew it was going to take a few years, certainly, to build a great club in Pittsburgh," Lemieux said. "We went through a very difficult four or five years, as you well know, in Pittsburgh, finishing last or close to last, then getting the draft picks that we needed to rebuild."

The Penguins obtained several stars on the team that is back in the final for the second year in a row, including centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Lemieux is particularly close to Crosby, who was selected first overall in the 2005 draft. Lemieux gushed that Crosby is "part of our family" and "a joy to be around."

"I think he's a lot more mature than I was at 21," Lemieux said. "He was a lot more mature at 18. He's a special kid. He's a better player than I was at the same age, for sure. Some of the things that he does on the ice -- his strength, skating ability -- is incredible. His passion for the game and his will to be the best each and every shift, his work ethic -- he's got it all."

Lemieux wouldn't predict a winner in this series, but he seems to believe the club is capable of changing the outcome of last year, when the Red Wings captured the title in six games.

"We had an opportunity last year that didn't go as planned, but, hopefully, this year the outcome is going to be different," Lemieux said. "We see our team as having a great chance this year. We have a different mind-set, different style of play and, hopefully, this year is our year.

"It would be a dream come true for me. Buying the team in '99 and rebuilding it with the people that we have in the organization, it should be a special moment if it ever happens."

Lemieux, who has his family of six here, once called the NHL "a garage league" because of the rampant interference that slowed the game and its skill players. But not anymore.

"I think it's great to see the game the way it turned out to be now," he said. "Not much clutching and grabbing. ... I was looking at tapes the other day from '91 and '92 [when the Penguins won the Cup], and there was a lot of grabbing there from both sides. But I think it's a lot more enjoyable for the hockey fans to watch these games now than what we used to watch year ago. And I enjoy it a lot more."

Even if it did take a physical toll.

"I get up every day, take a couple Advils and I'm ready to go," Lemieux said.

Shelly Anderson can be reached at or 412-263-1721.
First published on May 31, 2009 at 12:00 am

Offense takes back seat to hard hitting in opener

Sunday, May 31, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

DETROIT -- Niklas Kronwall, the hockey equivalent of a surface-to-hairline missle, had Evgeni Malkin measured for some serious mayhem early in the third period of last night's typically frantic Game 1.

DETROIT - MAY 30: Kris Letang(notes) #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins collides with Kirk Maltby(notes) #18 of the Detroit Red Wings during Game 1 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals at Joe Louis Arena on May 30, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Malkin was flying along the boards in neutral ice, his head lowered, and his immediate future seemingly headed for unconsciousness. Kronwall locked on him and swooped toward coordinates high on Geno's white sweater. In the last millisecond before they collided, Malkin lifted his chin and lowered his shoulder, mitigating the impact by 70 percent or more.

Had he not looked up, the result would have made Kronwall's hit at the same spot on the ice against Chicago's Martin Havlat last week look like a moonlight kiss. Havlat was unconscious before he hit the ice. Malkin escaped to play in tonight's Game 2.

And so it was that the least anticipated development of this opening chapter was the quickness with which both teams turned the ice surface into Detroit Rock City.

Brad Stuart rocked Ruslan Fedotenko. Brooks Orpik freight-trained Marian "I wanted to have the best chance to win the Stanley Cup and I felt Detroit is that team" Hossa. Stuart plastered Kris Letang against the window.

But most tellingly, Sidney Crosby took every opportunity to bang Henrik Zetterberg, who skated away with the Conn Smythe Trophy in this matchup last spring.

Crosby, widely considered a pretty boy by many of his Motown detractors -- they don't call him Cindy Crosby for nothing -- spun Zetterberg to the ice with a perfectly placed shoulder near the red line late in the first and the Penguins generally took their cue from the Captain all night.

"There is no revenge factor," Crosby had said after yesterday's morning skate. "It's a new year. It's a new opportunity. If we were playing anyone else we'd still feel the same way. We're four wins from the Stanley Cup. I don't think there's any extra motivation needed."

It was not as though the Wings had forgotten the four thunderous hits Orpik delivered on one shift in Game 3 at Mellon Arena last year, but when teams of pretty much unparalleled skill spend as much of Game 1 smacking the snot out of each other, it signals that we might be in for more violence than anyone predicted.

Crosby, again the prominent example, had three times as many hits (3) as shots after two periods. Perhaps you'd like to see the opposite.

How big was Fedotenko's backhander in the 19th minute of last night's first period?

Seeing as how it erased a 1-0 Red Wings lead with the first intermission dead ahead, it was huge on its own merit, but downright ginormous, egantic if you prefer, when you understand that Detroit has not lost in these Stanley Cup playoffs when leading after one.

Same with after two.

Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), from Sweden, collides with Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby(notes) during the first period of Game 1 of the NHL Stanley Cup finals hockey series in Detroit, Saturday, May 30, 2009.

Had it not been for Stuart's ridiculous bank shot off the rear boards and the rear stitches of Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's right pad five minutes earlier, the Wings would have trailed after one, and in a curious statistical inversion, they have not won in these Stanley Cup playoffs when trailing after one.

Same with after two.

Both first-period goals came off defensive end turnovers, Detroit's thanks to Hal Gill's inability to clear, Pittsburgh's courtesy of an even worse clearing attempt by Stuart that was intercepted by Geno Malkin. Malkin whistled at the net, where Chris Osgood appeared to control it, but it leaked in front of him after a long second. Osgood and Fedotenko got to the loose disc at the same moment, jarring it farther from the goalmouth, from where Fedotenko swatted it to the net.

But even as the Penguins were hitting every red shirt in cross traffic, the Wings kept hitting inanimate objects to their stunning benefit.

Johan Franzen, who doesn't need any help putting the puck in the net (The Mule has 24 goals in his last 33 post-season games), got just the right kind of kiss from the rear boards behind Fleury to put a second consecutive bank-shot goal in the final minute of the second period.

That goal had all the earmarks of a serious deflater, as it came after a Penguins timeout and at the end of a period in which Pittsburgh had dominated play and outshot the Wings 13-11.

But that was nothing compared to the airborne puck Justin Abdelkader settled next to Jordan Staal, who simply could not find it on his radar, and wristed past Fleury for a 3-1 lead less than three minutes into the final period.

There's a big gap this morning, between Penguin frustration and Penguin discouragement. The Penguins skated stride for stride with the Wings, banged with them muscle for muscle. They just lost the always unpredictable goofy goal factor.

Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283. More articles by this author
First published on May 31, 2009 at 12:03 am

No worries ... Penguins still better

Sunday, May 31, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

DETROIT -- The Penguins are down one game-to-none to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final, just as they were last season. They had major difficulties scoring goals in the 3-1 loss at Joe Louis Arena last night, just as they did last season. They were beaten in the second half of the game, just as they were last season.

No worries.

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

What's that about preferring to be lucky rather than good? The puck ends up on the back of Detroit goalie Chris Osgood late in last night's game in Detroit.

We are not -- say it again, not -- looking at a repeat of last season when the Red Wings looked like the old Soviet Red Army teams and dominated the first two games of the final at home on their way to taking the Cup in six games. It was so ridiculously lopsided early in the series -- the Red Wings won those first two games, 4-0 and 3-0 -- that I remember writing they could win in three.

Not this time.

I'm still thinking the Penguins are the better hockey club.

So are they?

"There are a lot of positives to take out of this one," defenseman Brooks Orpik said as midnight approached. "We played well enough to win. I think everyone is pretty excited about [Game 2 tonight]."

There's no question the Penguins deserved better. They had the better scoring chances even if they did manage to get just the one puck -- off the stick of winger Ruslan Fedotenko late in the first period -- by goaltender Chris Osgood. They matched the Red Wings' physical play and then some; we've come to expect hits such as Orpik's fierce open-ice check on old friend Marian Hossa early in the game, but Sidney Crosby brutalizing the Wings' Henrik Zetterberg? And -- this is really important -- they looked very much at ease lining up against the powerful, defending champions, who, it must be pointed out, were without star center Pavel Datsyuk (foot).

"The bounces just didn't go our way," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "They scored a couple of weird goals. But if we keep playing like this, we're pretty confident about our chances."

Certainly, there was a much different feeling in the Penguins' room last night than after Game 1 a year ago.

"The big thing is we know what to expect," Scuderi said. "The first two games last year were a bit of an eye opener. We had never played a team that played that well together.

"After we lost the first game, we figured we didn't play our best and that we'd get 'em in the next game. But after about 10 minutes of Game 2, we knew it wasn't us. They were that good.

"We did a good job adjusting after that, but it was too late."

All of that doesn't mean that the Penguins don't have to do their adjusting even quicker now with Game 2 to start in barely more than few hours. Falling into an 0-2 hole again would be a lot to overcome against a great opponent, even one that's weakened by the loss of Datsyuk -- a finalist for the NHL's MVP award -- and veteran center Kris Draper (groin).

It just means that the Penguins are much more capable of getting it done here and going home with a split for Game 3 Tuesday night.

On a lot of other nights, the Penguins would have won this one early in the second period when they fired one puck after another at Osgood. In the first 20 seconds, he made outstanding saves on wingers Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin. Then, he stopped center Evgeni Malkin on a breakaway about 3 1/2 minutes in. Later in the period, he turned away a good chance by winger Miroslav Satan.

"It easily could have been 3-1 or 4-1," Orpik said.

One or two of those same shots figure to go into tonight.

"Great chances," Guerin said. "Hopefully, we'll bury 'em in the next few games."

Crosby also had an excellent scoring chance in the third period not long after rookie Justin Abdelkader put the Red Wings ahead, 3-1. His shot hit off the post, landed on the sprawled Osgood's back and was covered with Osgood still in the crease by Zetterberg's gloved hand. That could have been a penalty shot for the Penguins, but it wasn't called.

"I've never seen that happen before," Crosby said. "I've never seen the puck stay on the goaltender's back like that."

Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury wasn't as good as Osgood. Without question, he wasn't as lucky. He knocked in the Red Wings' first goal after a bad bounce off the boards -- shame on him for that because he knows the Joe Louis boards are as lively as any in the NHL -- then knocked in their second goal late in the second period after winger Johan Franzen tried to get a pass to teammate Dan Cleary from behind the net. Even Abdelkader's goal -- you expect Hossa or Zetterberg to beat you, but Abdelkader? -- was unusual. He knocked the rebound of his own shot out of the air with his hand, then lifted the puck over Fleury.

It was that kind of night.

Yes, the Penguins lost.

But the feel here and in their room is that they were hardly beaten.

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author
First published on May 31, 2009 at 12:02 am

Game 1 was dandy, but tonight’s Game 2 just as pivotal

May 31, 2009

First of all, when 22 year-old Justin Abdelkader scores a huge goal, his first ever in an NHL game — let alone the Stanley Cup finals — and someone asks him where it ranks in his young career and he says “I’d have to put it right up there with Michigan State” — well, you know we are too spoiled with hockey around here.

Detroit's Marian Hossa fights for the puck on the boards with Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury and Rob Scuderi. (JULIAN H. GONZALEZ/DFP)

But that’s the kind of night Saturday was at the Joe. All the Humpty Dumpties that fell off the wall couldn’t put a crack in the Red Wings’ results. Not that fact that Pavel Datsyuk, their flashiest star, remains in street clothes. Not the fact that Nicklas Lidstrom, their captain, was coming off a groin issue. Not the fact that Abdelkader wouldn’t even be playing if not for an injury to someone else. Not the fact that NBC put two Star Cams on Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. (What? The Wings don’t have ONE GUY worth a camera?)

“When you’re in the finals,” Lidstrom said, after the 3-1 victory in Game 1, “everybody’s so happy and excited to be here again.”

The key word is “again.” There was a lot of excitement at Joe Louis Arena, but it was familiar excitement, not the kind that leaves you heaving for breath. There’s hardly a man on the Red Wings roster who hasn’t been to a Cup finals before, and that means a lot as far as getting you through a game for which you might otherwise be overwhelmed or under-rested.

And, yes, any game that starts with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay dropping pucks has to be a feel-good event for Detroit fans.

But this Stanley Cup opener had many layers in between the flying bounces and ricochets that defined the score.

And that makes tonight’s Game 2 critical. The Wings had better watch out.

Because Pittsburgh saw a lot of things Saturday night beyond the flashing red lights.

And many of them were encouraging.

These stats don’t lie

“Did you leave this game more confident than after Game 1 of last year?” Crosby was asked. The Wings won that opener, 4-0.

“Yeah, definitely,” Crosby said. “We made a few mistakes tonight, but so did they.”

And you can’t make mistakes in this series. That should be obvious. Both teams are too good, too carnal, they sniff out a turnover and quickly chomp, converting it to blood. Two Pittsburgh defensemen made a mistake in the first period, turning the puck over in their own end: Chomp. Bite. Brad Stuart banked a shot into the net, 1-0.

Minutes later, Stuart made the mistake, misjudging Malkin’s stick work. Chomp. Bite. That puck was stolen and fired on Chris Osgood, who allowed a bad rebound — chomp, bite, Ruslan Fedotenko knocked it past him, 1-1.

Excellence demands excellence. It will embarrass anything less. There were points in this game where the Wings were, as Osgood would say, “on our heels.” The fact that Pittsburgh goals didn’t come out of that was a combination of luck and Osgood. The goalie was never bigger than on Saturday, when he stopped a charging Malkin at pointblank range. The whole building was on its feet on that one, it was a cage match, a royal joust, their star, our star, and Ozzie denied the guy and it electrified the team and the place.

“It’s huge,” Lidstrom said of that play. “It gives our team a boost. The momentum could have swung in their favor.”

He’s right. And you can’t count on Osgood to be that stellar every time. The glaring numbers on the stat sheet Saturday night were for giveaways (Detroit had 20, compared to 13 by the Penguins) and shots (Pittsburgh had 32; the Wings, who normally overwhelm their opponents’ netminders, had 30).

Those numbers can’t remain, or there won’t be as much cheering for the Red and White tonight.

“You have to take away the turnovers,” Lidstrom said. “This is a really quick transition team. … You can’t give them a chance coming through the neutral zone with speed.”

A couple of weird bounces

But that’s the thing about these Wings in the playoffs. They are great at adjusting. The challenge will be doing it tonight, after some of the adrenaline dries up. Two games in two nights is even harder than it sounds, and Pittsburgh is younger and more desperate. A second loss would put the Penguins in a tough hole — not an impossible one, but a tough one — and I think they all know this fast turnaround is a chance to catch the Wings with their laurels up and their guard down.

“They got a few bounces,” Crosby said. “That’s what it came down to.”

Whether he is that cavalier about it — or whether the whack he took at Kirk Maltby at the end of the game revealed a deeper frustration — we will learn tonight.

Detroit's Justin Abdelkader celebrates in front of his teammates and Pittsburgh's Philippe Boucher and Jordan Staal after scoring a goal during 3rd period action. (JULIAN H. GONZALEZ/DFP)

Meanwhile, yes, they did get “a few bounces” but can we just take a moment of appreciation for Abdelkader’s goal? The kid is only in the lineup because of Kris Draper’s and Tomas Kopecky’s injuries, and he fires a shot, sees it fly into the air, flipping over Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal as if he were a magician’s foil (follow the birdie, where’s the birdie?) and then Abdelkader catches it on the fly, drops it and fires it in?

Or as he described it: “The puck kind of went up in the air. I jumped up, grabbed it, pulled it down and put it on net.”

Yeah. You know. That old play.

Reasons to doubt Fleury

A few other observations from this “Wow-we’ve-already-started?” opener. For all the fuss over Crosby and Malkin, how many series need to be played before someone talks about Johan Franzen before he forces you to? Since last spring, The Mule has affected the flow of every single playoff round. And every time a new one starts, the talk is about Henrik Zetterberg, Osgood, Lidstrom or the other team.

Here was Franzen on Saturday night, once again, scoring the winning goal by inventing it, steering a puck off the boards with a backhand that bounced off the leg of Pittsburgh’s goalie. Franzen now has 11 goals in the playoffs, and he is like the Mighty Mouse of this roster, just flying in and saving the day and then retreating back into some quiet disguise.

Another thought: Is it just me or does Osgood seem more relaxed than any time in his career? The NBC cameras caught him smiling and laughing a few minutes before the game. After the victory, he was as casual as the guy across the table at Starbucks. You get the feeling earlier in his career, Osgood spoke of his own confidence as a way to manufacture it; now it appears he’s just telling you how it is.

Meanwhile, his counterpart, Fleury, will be the subject of great scrutiny. You can dismiss Saturday night as some fluky pucks that got past him, but he is not a great positional goalie, he’s often down quickly, and if tonight he should surrender anything easy, some of that Pittsburgh confidence is going to quietly wane.

But that’s a big if. Most playoff series develop like book chapters, some more critical than others. Game 2 is always a pivot point, but especially so when it’s 24 hours after Game 1. Pittsburgh wants this one even more than Saturday night. And the Wings must remember what got them here, and it wasn’t the bouncy boards of Joe Louis Arena. It was attention to detail, puck control and a minimum of turnovers.

If they deliver on those, they won’t have to rely on flipping pucks that you catch midair.

Although, be honest, you wouldn’t mind seeing another one of those, would you?

Wings prevail after two goals off Fleury’s hindquarters

May 30, 2009

Detroit's Daniel Cleary watches the puck shot by teammate Johan Franzen go off the leg of Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for a goal. (JULIAN H. GONZALEZ/DFP)

That’s the way the puckie bounces …

… around here.

What? You never heard of the famous shoot-it-off-the-boards-and
-let-it-trickle-off-the back-of-the-
goaltender shot? We use it all the time in Detroit. None of us was surprised when Brad Stuart scored the first goal of the Stanley Cup finals with that old chestnut.

What? You never heard of the shoot-it-off-the-boards-
-off-the-goalie’s-leg maneuver? Of course Johan Franzen scored the second goal that way. We have fifth-graders who know that move.

What? You never tried, in your backyard pond, the always popular shoot-it-off-the-post-
shoot-it-in move? Where did you grow up? Young Justin Abdelkader pulled that off Saturday night, and he wasn’t even in the NHL at the start of the month!

That’s the way the puckie bounces … around here, and if the Penguins aren’t ready for it, well, maybe they shouldn’t be….

… shouldn’t be …

Ah, forget it. Call it what it was. One of the weirdest bouncing openers in recent memory. It’s not that the Red Wings didn’t work hard enough to earn this 3-1 victory. They surely did. But on another night, they work just as hard and don’t have any of those particular goals.

Heck, a nuclear physicist might not be able to draw those up again.

Detroit's Chris Osgood covers the puck in the goal crease. (JULIAN H. GONZALEZ/DFP)

Penguins came out firing

In addition to the goals, how about the third-period heart-stopper where Sidney Crosby fired on Chris Osgood at breath-smelling range, and Ozzie flopped to block it and the puck flipped up and landed on his back.

Right between the “Os” and the “good.”

“I’ve never seen that happen before,” Crosby said.

Oh, come on, Sid. That old play?

No, OK, even we admit, that’s a fresh one. But as Osgood told NBC about the bouncy boards in Detroit: “It makes it fun, but for a goaltender it’s not.”

Just ask Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who no doubt had nightmares of ricochets and pucks flipping like burgers. But hockey messes with you that way, and the great teams let the bounces help them to victory but don’t let them haunt to defeat. I know we have springy boards at Joe Louis Arena. But the building didn’t win Game 1.

The Wings did.

They did it with depth. (Abdelkader? Are you kidding? Is he out of college yet?) And they did it with goaltending. Osgood had one bad bounce of his own — a rebound that came out too far and was cashed in by Ruslan Fedotenko. But outside of that, Ozzie was spectacular. He saved this game on a night when the Pens were ready for an upset.

“When I get in the net I’m not doubting myself one bit,” he told NBC.

One day, someday, his critics will finally feel that way, too.

The little keys to victory

Meanwhile let’s say this about the Penguins. These are not last year’s star-gazers. Little brother has grown up. The kids are shaving and have licenses and may even drink a beer or two.
Pittsburgh is not intimidated. Not by this stage. Not by this place. If you thought a nervous hangover from last year’s defeat might haunt the Pens’ early minutes, you were wrong; Pittsburgh started strong and got stronger. If you thought rookie coach Dan Bylsma might swallow hard in his first finals, forget it. Bylsma was juggling combinations with his biggest players before the halfway point.

There were stretches where the Pens had the Wings back on their heels, and stretches where only Osgood kept this thing from slipping away.

“Ozzie made some real critical saves,” Mike Babcock said. When asked about the boards at the Joe, Babcock rolled his eyes. “Every rink you go to there are little nuances.”

Here’s another nuance: Henrik Zetterberg and crew once again did a great job draping Crosby, limiting him to two shots and no points. And another nuance: The Wings won with a less-than-healthy captain Nicklas Lidstrom.

“It’s a race to four,” Bylsma said. “They’ve got one.”

Well, then, here’s a last nuance: The Wings won without Pavel Datsyuk. And he’s got moves that make the puck look boring.

We’ll see how things bounce tonight.

Additional Facts

What happened

Brad Stuart scored at 13:38 of the first period when he caught the puck at the blue line. Stuart’s shot bounced off the end boards and banked in off Marc-Andre Fleury. Ruslan Fedotenko scored for Pittsburgh at 18:37 when he pounced on Evgeni Malkin’s rebound and found an open net. Malkin had intercepted Stuart’s clearing attempt. Johan Franzen banked in a backhand shot off Fleury at 19:02 of the second period. Justin Abdelkader made it 3-1 with his first goal of the playoffs at 2:46 of the third period.

Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay drop the first pucks before the start of game one of the Stanley Cup Finals. (KIRTHMON F. DOZIER/DFP)

Legends night: Red Wings greats Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay performed the ceremonial puck drop with team captains Nicklas Lidstrom and Sidney Crosby.

Overheard: Marian Hossa: “We have to be better, help our goalie more. He was outstanding tonight.” Sidney Crosby: “We’re confident that we can get one here and go home.”

Back boards magic: Going back to Darren Helm’s goal Wednesday, the Wings have scored three straight goals using the back boards. “Sometimes if you can’t get a clean shot at the net,” Stuart said, “you can throw it wide and it’s going to bounce somewhere out front if you play it right. We play enough in here to know that.” Franzen said: “If you don’t have a lane, you don’t want to hit the shin pads of a forward and get a turnover, so you try to put it behind and hope for a good bounce.”

Trash talking: Hossa said there was trash talk, “maybe once in a while, but you try not to listen.” … Crosby took umbrage at Kirk Maltby, afterwards explaining that: “He was doing what he always does, giving guys lip service and things like that. I two-handed him on top of the foot there as we were skating by. I thought I’d whack him and that was it.”

Possessing the puck: The Wings won 71% of face-offs.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Mario all smiles with Pens playing for Cup

Sunday, May 31, 2009

DETROIT — There are a few gray hairs in the playoff beard that Mario Lemieux has grown, but the smile he's worn throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs is straight out of 1992.

That was the year Lemieux lifted the Stanley Cup for a second and final time in his Hall-of-Fame playing career. A life-sized, black-and-white photo duplication of that moment - Lemieux smiling for a crowd at old Chicago Stadium on June 1, 1992, as he skated solo on a victory lap with the Cup - has draped from several walls around various buildings in Hockeytown this weekend.

Mario Lemieux talks with reporters before Game 1 of the NHL's Stanley Cup Final on Saturday in Detroit.
Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review

Super Mario would like to reintroduce himself to Lord Stanley's cherished chalice in the very near future.

"It would be a dream come true for me," Lemieux said Saturday a few hours before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between his Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings. "Buying the team in (1999) and rebuilding it with the people we have in the organization — it should be a special moment if it ever happens."

If the Penguins win the Cup for a third time, Lemieux and fellow team majority co-owner Ron Burkle, a California billionaire known to prefer black polo shirts and little public attention, will have provided NHL commissioner Gary Bettman with a winning moment of his own.

Lemieux, one of this sport's greatest players, and Burkle have transformed the Penguins into a model franchise for troubled member clubs in non-traditional markets such as Phoenix and Columbus.

"It is probably fair to say that the Pittsburgh Penguins were in worse shape ... because they didn't have at the time the prospect of a new building," Bettman said yesterday. "Look where they are today. Look where we are today, getting ready to watch them (in a second consecutive Cup final).

"They are an elite franchise."

Bettman has spent the past several weeks battling public outcry from Canadians who enthusiastically back billionaire Jim Balsillie's attempt to purchase the in-bankruptcy Phoenix Coyotes and relocate them to Southern Ontario.

The situation is rich in irony for Lemieux., who said "it wouldn't be appropriate for (him) to comment."

The Coyotes are coached by his greatest rival, all-time NHL scoring leader Wayne Gretzky, also a part-owner.

Balsillie, of course, signed a letter of intent to purchase the Penguins in 2006, but the sale fell apart after the league imposed restrictions because of the city's then-unresolved arena situation.

With his third failed attempt to sell the Penguins — to recoup money owed him from a player-contract signed in 1993 — Lemieux was then at his lowest as an owner.

Four months later, his rising began when the Penguins and Pennsylvania public officials agreed to terms on funding for Consol Energy Center, which is set to open in 2010.

Lemieux was paid in full last year for millions owed to him.

Today, his ownership group is a month removed from a third-best league ownership rating by Sports Illustrated and the young star-studded Penguins — captain Sidney Crosby still lives in Lemieux's suburban guest house - are estimated by Forbes at $88 million more than their $107 million cost in 1999.

Lemieux, reveling in his team's on-ice success, is smiling more than he has in almost 20 years. He hardly seemed to mind fielding questions yesterday from reporters, though it was a rare interview opportunity since Lemieux retired in 2005.

He is cherishing the opportunity to share these moments with his four children, who were either not born or too young to watch him win three MVPs and six scoring titles as a player.

"It's fun for them ... to be around and to come on the road with us when they can and to be a part of it," Lemieux said. "It's important for me to have them with us as much as we can."

Lemieux revealed yesterday that he started working out two months ago. A third comeback as a player is as unlikely as his ownership group selling the Penguins.

Still, despite a chronic back condition that never has completely healed and two surgically-repaired hips, Lemieux, 44, is smiling like a man counting the days until he can take another larger-than-life picture.

"I was with him through the difficult bankruptcy period, and it was hard on him," Bettman said. "This is very special because he's had a new role in once again creating greatness in Pittsburgh.

"He's loving it."

Penguins feel better prepared for Wings

By Damien Cox
The Toronto Star
May 30, 3009


The first day Bill Guerin showed up in the Pittsburgh dressing room in March after being traded to the Penguins, he looked at the high-tech underwear Sidney Crosby wears under his equipment with extra shoulder padding and chuckled.

"Geez, my wife used to wear that kind of padding with her suits," he deadpanned.

From then on, Crosby was different, every day a little lighter and looser with Guerin riding him playfully.

Sidney Crosby(notes) speaks during a news conference in Detroit, Friday, May 29, 2009. Pittsburgh will meet the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals starting Saturday. (AP)

The Penguins, in general, believe they are a different team, both from mid-February when (Disco) Dan Bylsma took over as head coach – they've lost only eight games since – and from last spring when they lost the Stanley Cup final to the Detroit Red Wings in six games.

"There will be no surprises this year," Crosby said yesterday. "We know our opponent."

Last year's final began with Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury tripping and falling onto the ice surface as he led his team out for Game 1 at Joe Louis Arena, perhaps a piece of foreshadowing that the young Penguins might not be quite ready.

This year, Fleury promises he'll make a more graceful entrance, and it is the veteran Red Wings who seem a little vulnerable heading into the series with an assortment of injuries to key players while facing five games in eight days.

"By the time we get to Pittsburgh for Game 3 (on Tuesday) we should be getting stronger," Detroit GM Ken Holland said yesterday. "We'll be gathering bodies as we go."

All-world blueliner Nicklas Lidstrom, out for the final two games of the Western Conference final against Chicago, is expected to play his 229th playoff match in Game 1 tonight, and impressive young defenceman Jonathan Ericsson should be back after undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Wednesday afternoon.

Both Pavel Datsyuk (foot bruise) and Kris Draper (groin), meanwhile, are unlikely to play, but should be back by Game 3.

"I want to play, not watch," said Datsyuk, who had three goals in two games against Pittsburgh during the regular season.

"Right now, it's a little hard to turn. But, especially in the playoffs, everybody plays in pain."

If Datsyuk can't play, the Wings will compensate again with members of their impressive depth chart like youngsters Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Ville Leino.

"Well, when (Datsyuk) doesn't play, we have to have someone else hold on to the puck for 18 minutes of the game," laughed Detroit head coach Mike Babcock.

The Penguins deliver a decidedly different game under Bylsma, playing a more aggressive and physical game down low in the offensive zone.

"They don't try to score as many pretty goals now," said Detroit netminder Chris Osgood, who shut out the Pens in Games 1 and 2 last spring.

Bylsma, meanwhile, likes to dress 11 forwards and seven defencemen and give Crosby and Evgeni Malkin extra shifts on the fourth line.

"We're going to try to force them to deal with us, whether they're healthy or not healthy," said the 38-year-old Bylsma, a native of Grand Haven, Mich., and the author of four books with his father, Jay.

Yesterday's media sessions illustrated how quickly the hockey industry can change. Marian Hossa, the first player to switch sides in a Cup final rematch in 45 years, answered queries yesterday as a Red Wing a year after doing the same as a Penguin. Detroit backup goalie Ty Conklin is making his third trip to the final in four years, all with different teams. Barry Melrose, who began this season as head coach in Tampa Bay while Bylsma was beginning his first year as a head coach in the minors, sat at the back of the room yesterday working for ESPN while Bylsma sat at the podium beside Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero fielding questions.

The Pens believe they are different, more experienced and certainly hungrier, and seem sure they can dethrone the champions.

The Wings? Quietly confident, they just have to do again what they've done before.

Penguins are ready to wing it again

Crosby's crew has already defied the odds

Saturday, May 30, 2009
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Moments after the last puck slid through the crease and the Detroit Red Wings claimed the Stanley Cup last year, the Penguins began a march that has a snowball's chance in June of being completed. According to history, that is.

Since expansion in 1967, the year the Penguins were born, only one team has lost in the Stanley Cup final one year and returned to win it the following year -- the Edmonton Oilers of 1983 and 1984. Frankly, teams who have lost out in the quest for the grail have had a tough time just making it back to the playoffs the following year.

John Heller/Post-Gazette

With cup in hand, fans rally in the first period in front of the Jumbotron outside Mellon Arena as the Pens and Red Wings battle inside in game six of the Stanley Cup Final last year.

But in defiance of past events, here they are, back in the final against the defending champions, four wins away from going into the record book.

"If you look at history, we might as well not even play," Brooks Orpik said, with a chuckle. "In August, chances were we weren't going to get back. But we have a pretty focused group. I think we block all that stuff out. It's a testament to the character in our locker room that we have this opportunity."

The chance to become a team of destiny, like Marian Hossa's decision that his best chance to win the Cup was to sign with Detroit, is a subplot in the proceedings that begin tonight at the Joe Louis Arena. Capturing the Cup -- the hardest prize in sports to win -- is enough of a story line.

"You don't need any extra motivation this time of year," said winger Craig Adams, a recent addition to the roster.

Still, the Penguins are four wins away from a remarkable feat that has some remarkable parallels. A quarter century ago, a year after the Edmonton Oilers lost to the four-time champion New York Islanders and three weeks before Mario Lemieux was drafted, Edmonton earned a rematch and won, beginning a run of five titles in a seven-year span.

Can a similar passing of the torch from a veteran team to the new kids on the block be at hand? The ingredients are there, given that the Penguins have their rematch with the Red Wings, who have won four Cups in the past 11 years. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury have been mentioned more than once as incarnations of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Grant Fuhr.

It's nice to think that the Penguins are ready to take the next step after getting a lesson in playoff hockey from Ottawa two years ago and a big lesson from the Red Wings in the championship round a year ago.

But there are no automatics in sports. Sweat and sacrifice are required to hoist the 35-pound chalice of silver and nickel alloy, first awarded in 1894 at the behest of the Right Honourable Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath and the original Stan The Man.

"Honestly? We're a seven-game series now, and we have to play the games. It doesn't matter what happened in 1984 or 1998. It only matters what happens this year," said winger Billy Guerin, a late-season pickup. "All that other stuff, that's for you guys. It sells papers. It's not something we think about."

The Red Wings, hockey's gold standard, are looking to write their own history. They could complete a repeat for the first time since the 1997-1998 Red Wings.

Players say there could be lots reasons why runners-up tend to fade the next time around.

"It's mentally tough because you went as far as the champs did, but you come up empty. There's such a quick turnaround to get ready for the next season," said defenseman Mark Eaton.

Since 1996, four of the 11 teams that came up short in the Cup final did not qualify for the playoffs, and those that did usually lost in the first round.

In fact, the Penguins were following form through the middle of February, hovering just over the .500 mark and two places out of a playoff spot. Then came a coaching change and an infusion of new and healthy players.

"We were able to right the ship before it was too late and get things going in the right direction," Mr. Eaton said.

Although the core players remain from both finalists, the Penguins have undergone such a transformation that it is not exactly the same group.

"It's great that the same organizations are there, but I think the teams are different," said Chris Kunitz, one of the Penguins' newcomers. "With us, it's a new team and new coaching staff."

He sees evidence that the Penguins have a lot of gas in the tank for the final push, as evidenced by the team T-shirt that asks rhetorically: "Ya hungry?"

"All these guys with young legs, they're ready to go. They compete every night," Mr. Kunitz said. "I think the experience is going to be a big thing that factors to how well we're going to do."

Last year, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury got so amped up that he fell flat on his face when he bolted onto the ice in the opening game of the final. The Penguins, as a group, fell symbolically, being shut out the first two games. But Mr. Fleury and the Penguins rebounded to make it a series, and here they are again.

No one finds satisfaction in defying history just by making it back.

"It's cool to know," Mr. Fleury said, with his trademark grin. "What we've done is pretty good so far, but we all know it's not done yet. We have four more wins to get.

"Last year was a good experience for us in how to deal with the stress, the media, the emotions, the loud buildings. I think everybody will be better prepared this year."

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at
First published on May 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

Crosby's legacy to soon include a Stanley Cup

Saturday, May 30, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

DETROIT -- Step into the middle of the Penguins' cramped locker room at Mellon Arena and your eyes immediately search for Sidney Crosby. His locker is to the far right, near the end of a long row, second one in. The first locker belongs to Mario Lemieux, preserved just so the way lockers always are for icons, which Lemieux is, and for those who die during their career.

Two huge pictures hang on the adjoining wall, one of Lemieux holding the Stanley Cup high in 1991 or '92 and a second of the Cup itself. Crosby can't help but see them every day, can't help but realize how there's room for a third photo, can't help but think that a picture of him holding the precious Cup above Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and the rest of their band of brothers would complete the set.

Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck under pressure from Mikael Samuelsson #37 of the Detroit Red Wings during game six of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Finals at Mellon Arena on June 4, 2008 in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania.
(Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images North America)

That thought will motivate Crosby in the next two weeks, maybe not that exact thought, but one very similar. Certainly, the will to win that smolders intensely inside him -- the all-consuming desire to be called a champion -- will motivate him against the Detroit Red Wings.

It seems as if Crosby has prepared his whole life for this challenge, this Stanley Cup final. He's ready, amped, you name it. His teammates are ready, more prepared than a year ago when the Red Wings took them down in six games in the final and had their own Kodak moments with the Cup, on Mellon Arena ice no less. The agony that went with watching Detroit's great captain, Nicklas Lidstrom, hoisting the hardware still haunts Crosby and the others.

But this is a new year, a new Cup final. It's safe to say the Penguins won't be overwhelmed early in the series the way they were last season.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury won't fall flat on his face coming onto the Joe Louis Arena ice tonight for Game 1. The Penguins won't be shut out in the first two games. They won't waste two extended five-on-three advantages in the series. They won't be outshot, 212-142. They won't be outscored in the third periods, 9-3.

They won't be denied.

All of it comes back to Crosby, a great team captain in his own right. OK, all of it but that Fleury-falling business. That's strictly up to Fleury. "I'm pretty sure that won't happen again," he said, grinning as always, the other day.

The rest of it is on Crosby, especially that won't-be-denied part.

"I've never seen him play better," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said this week.

Nor has anyone else. At this point of the playoffs, Crosby has to be the favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP. He has more goals than anyone with 14 and shares the points lead with Malkin with 28. He has tied a prized NHL record with six first goals. And he has that out-of-this-world will to win.

Now as long as the league office keeps the players out of the Smythe voting ...

Sports Illustrated took a poll of those geniuses before the playoffs and asked each to name the league's best player, teammates excluded.
Washington's Alex Ovechkin was No. 1 with 51 percent of the votes, followed by Lidstrom, Malkin, Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, Calgary's Jerome Iginla and Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg. Remarkably -- no, absurdly -- Crosby finished eighth with 1.9 percent.

"That's pretty ridiculous," Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton said.


"I think he's proven through these playoffs that he's the best player in the league. He and his teammate [Malkin]," Orpik said.

It's jealousy, really. The players aren't so much envious of Crosby's wondrous talent as a two-way player, a playmaker and, in these playoffs, a big-time goal-scorer. They're envious that the NHL suits chose to make him the face of the league. That can be the only explanation for Washington's Alexander Semin asking so foolishly in the fall, "What's so special about [Crosby]?"

The answer has never been clearer than it was in the first three rounds of these playoffs when Crosby led the Penguins past Philadelphia, Semin's Washington hockey club and Carolina. Now, it's about to become even more evident.

It's so hard to pick against the Red Wings in the final. They're not just the defending champions. Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg and the rest are a proud and talented bunch.

But it's even harder to pick against the Penguins when Crosby is playing like this. The next time you step back into that cramped locker room, there will be a third picture on the wall, one of a beaming Crosby holding the Cup with Malkin, Gonchar and the others huddled around him, not just a band of brothers today, but champions forever.

Penguins in six.

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author
First published on May 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

Penguins in seven?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

I'm tortured.

One minute, I am convinced that the Penguins are as good as they looked against Carolina and will beat the banged-up Detroit Red Wings in five or six games.

The next minute, I remember that playing against Niclas Wallin isn't quite the same as playing against Nicklas Lidstrom — injured or not — and Niklas Kronwall. I remember that the Red Wings tend to overwhelm people — they've outshot their opponent in 34 of their past 38 playoff games, including 26 by double-digits — and really like to win championships.

Red Wings in three.

No, that won't fly.

A talk with Canadian hockey analyst Don Cherry on Tuesday morning hardly cleared things up. Cherry said he thought the Red Wings were saving Lidstrom, which would make a lot of sense if it, you know, didn't make any sense.

"I think there's nothing wrong with him," Cherry said. "He's just getting a little rest."

This whole thing has me perplexed, especially the part about how the Penguins allegedly hold nothing against Marian Hossa.

Does anyone really believe that?

I think the Penguins were convinced that Hossa liked their offer last summer and was ready to sign. I think he stunned them by taking a one-year deal from Detroit after negotiating only multiple-year deals with the Penguins.

I think some of them — from ownership on down — felt burned, and I think they didn't appreciate Hossa's comment at the time, which, you'll recall, came shortly after he'd fought and bled with the Penguins all the way to a six-game Stanley Cup final loss to Detroit.

"When I compared the two teams," Hossa said, "I felt like I would have a better chance to win the Cup in Detroit."

Maybe he was just being honest, but after somebody breaks up with you, wouldn't you rather they keep quiet or lie than be brutally honest — especially in public?

"When I compared the two," she said, in front of all Bob's friends at the party, "I felt like I would have a better chance for a happy life with Jim."

Max Talbot was one of the few Penguins players, at the time, who admitted to hard feelings. And even if Talbot was being politically correct on the subject Friday, before the Penguins left for Detroit, his eyes steeled when he was reminded of Hossa's "better chance" quote.

"That's what he thinks," Talbot said. "We'll just try to prove him wrong."

How about you, Marc-Andre Fleury. Any hard feelings?

"A little disappointed," Fleury said. "But he was a real nice guy. I have to respect his decision. He's been in the league for a while, and he felt he had to go. ... But we're here, too."

Yeah, that's the problem, and it leads us back to my tortured mind. Maybe if we let the voices play out, we'll determine a winner (if not, let's just recycle last year's prediction and go with the Penguins in seven.).

Voice No. 1: The Penguins are older, wiser, better than they were last year, Joe. Pick them. Sidney Crosby's on a mission. Evgeni Malkin might be the best player in the world, as compared to the worst player in the world, which he was during much of last year's final. The Red Wings are ravaged. Lidstrom and Datsyuk? They can't win without those guys healthy. Penguins in five.

Voice No. 2: Be serious, Joe. These are the Red Wings. You think a few injuries are going to stop them? They still have Zetterberg, Hossa, Franzen, Kronwall, Rafalski and terrific role players. They're going to crash the net and feast on those fat Fleury rebounds. Red Wings in five.

Voice No. 1: No, Penguins in seven. The Red Wings are getting long in the tooth (quick, who's older - Chris Chelios or John Wooden?) and have to play three games in four nights. Their penalty kill stinks. Plus, the Penguins' new style will generate way more shots than last year, thus exposing Detroit goalie Chris Osgood like a flying octopus. Who's his backup, anyway?

Voice No. 2: Ty Conklin, who left the Penguins as a free agent last summer, right after the final. Anybody mad at him?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Here's your finals -- what's your hurry?

May 29, 2009

Dear NBC and NHL:

I'll begin with a simple question. Do either of you actually like hockey?

I think I can answer for NBC (a.k.a. "Nothing But Conan"), because it is clear the network would rather break out in a deadly skin rash than show the Stanley Cup finals on a weeknight.


The Wings and Penguins are set to battle just like they did in last year's Stanley Cup finals - but why so soon after the conference finals?

Honestly, NBC (a.k.a. "Not Bleepin' Canadians!") treats this sport like an ugly cousin it has to take to the prom. There are shotgun marriages that have more love. NBC doesn't even pay the NHL to broadcast its games. In fact, the NHL has to wait until NBC has recouped its production costs before getting a penny (and has to help sell the advertising, which is a bit like having to bake the Girl Scout cookies, then buy and eat them, too).

And this includes the championship round!

Which now begins Saturday night -- a fast three days after the Red Wings won the Western Conference finals -- with Games 1 and 2 a mere 24 hours apart, thus wiping out much of the home-ice advantage the Wings fought so hard to earn during the regular season.

Or at least that's the news as I write this. Until a few days ago, we all thought the finals were starting June 5. Then, suddenly, a new schedule -- as if they're arranging a play date during flu season.

Imagine if the NFL worked this way?

"You going to the Super Bowl?"

"Not sure. When is it?"

"Maybe Sunday. Maybe Wednesday."

"I dunno. Who else is going?"

Hey, this isn't a pizza party, guys. It's the Stanley Cup finals. It's the biggest stage for the greatest sport in the world -- at least to hockey lovers.

Which we in Detroit are.

And which TV -- in New York and L.A. -- is not.

Expected to work overtime

But that's no reason to punish the players. During the postgame media sessions after Detroit eliminated Chicago, coach Mike Babcock and several Wings seemed bewildered at the timing of the finals.

"Normally, when you win in five games, you get this little break -- normally," Babcock said. "I don't know if we're making up for lost time ... or whatever we're doing. They don't ask me these questions."

Of course not. Players and coaches should just shut up and do as they're told -- even though they ARE the sport. So the Wings, despite their captain Nicklas Lidstrom and superstar Pavel Datsyuk ailing with injuries, have to suck it up and be ready for Saturday night and then -- bang! -- Sunday night because NBC likely doesn't want to use a weeknight and run the risk of an overtime game that -- heaven forbid! -- might cut into Conan O'Brien's debut week on "The Tonight Show."

This way, by broadcasting Games 1 and 2 this weekend and Game 5 next Saturday -- Games 3 and 4 are on Versus -- NBC (a.k.a. "Never Been Checked") won't even use up a weeknight.

And it can pray this ends before a Game 6.

Better than a monologue

Of course, NBC always could do what it did a few years ago during a conference finals game -- just dump the overtime onto a cable channel, which it did to Buffalo and Ottawa. The reason? It had commitments to show the Preakness two-hour prerace coverage.

Listen, Gary Bettman, when your league counts less than horses warming up, you better wonder about the relationship.

Here's a question: Do you think if Sidney Crosby were nursing an injury, they would rush into these finals? Don't expect an honest answer.

Hey, I understand ratings, star power, advertising, revenue sharing. I just don't think they should dictate something as important as the Stanley Cup finals. Years from now, when nobody remembers what TV show was on what network, the results of this series will be in the books, part of hockey lore. That should matter. That should be protected.

But Bettman, desperate for league credibility, will do whatever the networks want -- even though they would laugh him out of the office if he actually asked for, you know, money in exchange one of the greatest traditions in the history of sports.

As Wings forward Marian Hossa said, "You get the Stanley Cup finals once a year. Why do you rush it? What if the first game goes to three or four overtimes? Then we have to start again the next night? I don't think that's smart."

Smart exits when you're begging for coverage. But protecting the game and its history should not. Maybe one day, this league and a network actually will find each other attractive. Till then, it's four games in six days, and lots of black coffee.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

NHL gets lucky with Penguins vs. Red Wings -- the perfect final

Friday, May 29, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There has been plenty of talk this spring about a widespread conspiracy in the NHL. Word in Philadelphia, Washington and Raleigh, N.C., is that the league wanted the Penguins to get to the Stanley Cup final and did everything it could to make it happen, going so far as to give beneficial calls by the referees to the sport's poster boy, Sidney Crosby. Well, I'm here this morning to dispute that vigorously. I don't think the NHL officials are nearly that smart.

They're just lucky, that's all.

Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck past Jiri Hudler #26 of the Detroit Red Wings during game one of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Finals at Joe Louis Arena on May 24, 2008 in Detroit, Michigan.

Lucky to have the incomparable Crosby and Evgeni Malkin under the bright spotlight on hockey's grandest stage for what figures to be a marvelous two-week run.

And lucky to have the defending champion Detroit Red Wings as the opponents in a blockbuster sequel to last year's entertaining Cup final.

"I guess the only way it could be better is if it was us and Washington," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik was saying after practice yesterday. "But it's pretty good, isn't it?"

Pretty great, actually.

The Penguins-Washington series in the second round of these playoffs was indeed spectacular. For seven sublime games, Crosby and Capitals star Alex Ovechkin tried to outdo each other with Crosby getting the final edge with two goals and an assist in the clinching, 6-2 win. If you listened closely, you almost could hear the squeals of joy coming from the NHL office. They couldn't have dreamed up anything better to sell their game to an international audience.

The Penguins-Carolina series was next in the Eastern Conference final. The competition wasn't much -- the Penguins won four games in a row, the final three by lopsided scores -- but Malkin's performance was extraordinary. If you only Tivoed one game during this playoff grind, here's hoping it was Game 2 when he torched the Hurricanes for a hat trick. His third goal that night -- the spinning backhander that beat goaltender Cam Ward high -- was nothing less than otherworldly, prompting more hoots from the NHL suits.

Now, the really cool thing:

The best is yet to come.

It's nice to think Crosby and Malkin -- the top two point-getters and goal-scorers of this playoff year -- will have that big stage to themselves, but, sadly, that doesn't appear to be the case. I read somewhere just last night that indicated the Red Wings are planning to show up. They, too, have a few of the brighter lights in the NHL galaxy, adding to the merriment at league headquarters.

Really, you don't think anyone wanted to see a Penguins-Chicago final, do you? Or a Detroit-Carolina final?

Snooze ...

Among those the Red Wings are expected to send to the party is Pavel Datsyuk, a finalist, along with Malkin and Ovechkin, for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP. Sure, he has a bad foot, but who among us won't be shocked if he doesn't play? There is defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, a favorite to win the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman for the seventh time in the past eight years. He's also banged up with the mysterious "lower-body injury," but you really don't think he's going to miss any of the fun, do you? There is Henrik Zetterberg, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs MVP last season when Detroit took out the Penguins in six games. There is the great Marian Hossa ...

Perhaps you have heard something about Hossa bailing on the Penguins after last season to sign with the Red Wings so he could -- these are his words now-- "try to go all the way and win the Stanley Cup."

Harrumphed Crosby yesterday, "That never was an issue in here," doing his very best to quiet the upcoming media storm.

Good luck with that, Kid.

"To be honest, no, not at all, he's no fun to play against," Orpik said, a little more willing to discuss the Hossa factor that figures to dominate the fortnight. "He's just so skilled and so dynamic as a player. It's his combination of speed and the fact that he's so big and strong that make him such a great player."

Maybe all of it won't make for dynamite television ratings anywhere but in Detroit, which likes to call itself "Hockeytown," and in Pittsburgh, which doesn't need an ego-inflating title to prove its passion for the game. Hockey just doesn't do well on TV, especially not on gorgeous late-spring evenings.
That's unfortunate for the NHL honchos, I suppose, but it doesn't change the bottom line for us. As sports fans, we're lucky to be living where we're living. We're in for some show.

Game 1 Tomorrow
8 p.m. @ DET, TV: WPXI
Game 2 Sunday
Game 3 Tuesday
8 p.m. @ PIT, TV: VS
Game 4 Thursday
8 p.m. @ PIT, TV: VS
Game 5 June 6
8 p.m. @ DET, TV: WPXI
Game 6 June 9
8 p.m. @ PIT, TV: WPXI
Game 7 June 12
8 p.m. @ DET, TV: WPXI

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author
First published on May 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

Ward gushes over Obama, mourns S. Korean ex-president's death

Wednesday, May 27, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It was a Memorial Day weekend Hines Ward will never forget -- from the White House to the Blue House.

Hours after the president of the United States declared the Steelers wide receiver "the happiest man in football," Ward's feelings turned to sadness when he learned of another president's death half a world away. Roh Moo-hyun, who called Ward a "hero" in spring 2006 after they lunched together in the Blue House home of the South Korean president, committed suicide when the former president jumped off a mountain cliff overlooking his home Saturday.

President Barack Obama packs USO care packages with Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Reciever Hines Ward during a service event on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, May 21, 2009, with the Superbowl Champions Pittsburgh Steelers and wounded veterans.(Getty Images)

"My mom shed a tear because she has a picture of me, my mother, the president and his wife," Ward said after another Steelers spring practice yesterday.

It was Roh to whom Ward made an appeal three years ago to rid South Korea of its laws and attitudes against racially mixed people, of which Ward was one. He was born in South Korea and moved with his mother to the United States 32 years ago.

Ward's return to South Korea with his mother in April 2006 came two months after his Super Bowl MVP performance in the Steelers' victory against Seattle. Koreans mobbed him on a trip to Seoul that he scheduled long before he became a Super Bowl hero. He combined it to set up his charitable foundation to try to bring social justice to his native country, prompting Roh to say: "You came back a hero. Children growing up in South Korea can have big dreams by watching Hines Ward."

Roh, who left office last year, was embroiled in a bribery scandal when he committed suicide.

"To have the tragedy happen, it hits home to me," said Ward, who postponed his annual trip to South Korea this year after his mother had successful heart surgery. "Everything I remember about the first trip, he was very involved with the situation and involved with me helping getting my foundation started.

"It's a sad day in Korea and I know my mom is very disturbed about it."

Mother and son spent part of Memorial Day watching news of the former South Korea president's death on a Korean channel. It was a striking dichotomy for Hines Ward's extended holiday weekend.

First, President Barack Obama called him football's happiest man during a public speech Thursday as he greeted the Super Bowl champion Steelers on the South Lawn of the White House. Then Ward found himself stuffing USO care packages next to the president for nearly half an hour, chit-chatting with him.

"That was awesome," said Ward. "I was just ecstatic. I was like a little kid, I want every photo op. I'm on his right side -- for 30 minutes I was President Obama's right-hand man!"

What kind of small talk does one have for 30 minutes with a sitting president?

"I asked him about his basketball skills, was he a basketball player and stuff like that," Ward said. "He called me the happiest guy in the NFL and we both chuckled about it. ... I asked him: 'Is there any downtime for the president?' I'm thinking the president works 24 hours in a day. He told me the little downtime he had.

"I asked him about his kids, how they were relating, how they are reacting to the whole as far as you being president, because they're young. About his wife. I've heard he likes Burger King, so I asked him, 'One day I heard a story when you actually stood in line.' He loves Burger King."

They talked mainly about sports, back and forth.

"I was nervous. Getting a chance to kick it with the president for 20 or 30 minutes was awesome, something I will cherish the rest of my life. ... I tried to hold back from saying something silly, saying something stupid."

Yesterday, it was back to the normal stuff -- a spring practice with the Super Bowl champs. Ward has not practiced this year because of shoulder surgery, acting more as a coach. He expects to go through training camp.

Sometimes, Ward, who has met four presidents from the United States and South Korea and earned two Super Bowl rings, has to pinch himself.

"It's like Forrest Gump, man," he said. "I can't explain my career, how it started, never would I have guessed I would meet [two] presidents of Korea and [two] presidents of America. It's just crazy to me."

NOTE -- The Steelers will receive their Super Bowl rings June 9 in a private ceremony inside Heinz Field.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at
First published on May 27, 2009 at 12:00 am

Thursday, May 28, 2009

NHL's wacky Cup final schedule hurts the hurting Red Wings

By Michael Farber
May 28, 2009

A stroll down memory lane . . .

The year is 1955. Canadiens fans riot outside the Forum when NHL President Clarence Campbell suspends Maurice Richard. Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. The Mickey Mouse Club premiers on ABC-TV. The NHL holds back-to-back games during the Detroit-Montreal Stanley Cup Final.

Now further to the subject of Mickey Mouse . . .

Gary Bettman's NHL gets no rights fees from NBC sports chairman Dick Ebersol (right) but is willing to make historic schedule changes.
John M. Heller/Getty Images

After a 54-year hiatus -- a five-plus-decade interregnum in which the NHL presumably thought that playing on consecutive days in the Stanley Cup Final was a crummy idea -- back-to-back games are, well, back. The defending champion Red Wings and the perhaps impending champion Penguins play Game 1 on Saturday and -- pause for air -- Game 2 on Sunday.

There are people inured to the charms of Detroit who have wanted to beat a retreat from that noble city, but the NHL is moving quicker here than a summer thunderstorm. The Red Wings and Penguins then will play Game 3 on Tuesday in Pittsburgh. Unless my math is off, that represents three games in four days, a haste that previously has been on display in the final only by Paul Coffey on the rush and sportswriters battling the twin demons of deadlines and last call.

Goodness, three games in four days. If you didn't know better, you might have guessed this was January in the Southeast Division.

While the NHL deserves moderate applause for taking smelling salts and reversing its original lunatic announcement that the final would start June 5 if either conference final went beyond four games -- hockey would have been harder to find than D.B. Cooper if it had disappeared for more than a week at this time of year -- the decision to hustle through the first two games to suit NBC's tastes is misguided.

The network pays the NHL in rights fees exactly the number of combined playoff wins by Montreal and St. Louis this spring -- yes, zero -- but it has a disproportionately loud voice in scheduling the league's showcase event. For the niche NHL, NBC represents exposure. (The network is televising Games 1 and 2, then 5 through 7 while Games 3 and 4 are on Versus, the league's subterranean cable partner.) The suspicion is that if NBC, which has not re-upped beyond this year, wanted the NHL to paint the crease area lavender instead of blue, Commissioner Gary Bettman would send out a minion with a watercolor set.

Like the old joke about Los Angeles Kings fans, the games start whenever NBC can get there.

The days when the best-of-five first round began with four matches in five nights are miles back in the rearview mirror. The pace is more measured now, properly so. There are times in the early rounds of the playoffs when back-to-backs are unavoidable because of building availability.

This spring, the Penguins and Capitals were forced into back-to-back games in different cities and three-in-four nights because of a Yanni concert. (Capitals general manager George McPhee hates Yanni.) The Penguins survived the interruption of the natural playoff rhythm, of course, and won a swell seven-game series. Now the Penguins and Red Wings, who will have two days off before Games 6 and 7, will survive because that is what they do. Like a lot of us, they are just happy to be here.

But by agreeing to play two straight and three in four, the NHL has also tipped the competitive edge to the healthier Penguins. The only significant injured Penguin is defenseman Sergei Gonchar; a surgeon, not rest, is going to heal his damaged knee. Meanwhile, Detroit has been decimated, clinching Game 5 against Chicago without stars Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and regulars Kris Draper and Jonathan Ericsson because of injuries sustained during that conference final.

After announcing that the last possible date of a final would be June 15 (and later amending that to June 16), the calendar boys in the NHL now have guaranteed a wrap by June 12, which is late, but not absurd. But barreling through the first two games is not worth the deleterious effect it might have on the play and the players.

Back-to-backs are for home runs, not the Stanley Cup Final. While the NHL must be mindful of its broadcast partners' desires, like a peacock it should stand on its own two legs.

The Hockey News 2009 Stanley Cup Preview

2009-05-28 12:00:00

The grueling journey for the Stanley Cup is almost over. Just two teams remain – and they’re awfully familiar with each other.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings will clash in the final for the second straight year, the first time since 1983-84 there has been a repeat in opponents (Islanders-Edmonton).

Through three rounds, our predictions here at have been pretty spot-on. Thanks to a conference finals sweep, we head into the Cup with a 10-4 record.

Can the Wings go back-to-back or will the Penguins take the first step towards their dynasty?

In seven games or less the answer awaits, but here’s how we see it going down.



Detroit - 1-0-1 (9 GF, 7 GA)
Pittsburgh - 1-1-0 (7 GF, 9 GA)


Detroit - Jiri Hudler and Marian Hossa 3 (2G, 1A)
Pittsburgh - Jordan Staal 4 (3G, 1A)


Unless one of these two teams plays entirely out of character, special teams aren’t likely to be an enormous factor. And that’s probably good news for the Red Wings, whose penalty-killing has been uncharacteristically atrocious in the post-season, giving up 15 power play goals in 57 opportunities and sitting near the bottom of the heap among playoff teams in that category. Both squads, however, have been incredibly well-behaved throughout the playoffs and don’t take stupid or lazy penalties, which, for some reason, seem to be the hardest ones to kill. Detroit’s power play has been better than Pittsburgh’s, but their penalty-killing shortcomings will keep them honest. Edge: Pittsburgh


At first blush, you’d look at what Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have done in this year’s playoffs and make this category a slam-dunk for Pittsburgh, but have you noticed that the Red Wings have averaged almost 40 shots a game through the playoffs so far? The Penguins forward ranks are top-heavy with superstars who are playing like superstars, along with some role players who are making some timely contributions. The Red Wings, on the other hand, have a band of brothers on their four lines that, on any given night, have the potential to make life miserable for their opponent. Crosby seemed to get away from the shoot-first mentality that made him such a force in the second round, but if he and Malkin continue their level of play, the Red Wings defense will have all it can handle. Edge: Even


The Penguins have received some yeomen’s work from a defense corps that is a little underappreciated and has held up quite well, but this is one area of the game where the Red Wings have an enormous advantage – if their defensemen are all healthy. Jonathan Ericsson having surgery on his appendix prior to Game 5 of the Western Conference final was a surprise and the Red Wings have to be concerned about how effective Nicklas Lidstrom will be. But they have a couple of days to recover and, if healthy, have an all-round game that the Penguins can’t match. Edge: Detroit


Marc-Andre Fleury was lights-out in Game 4 of the Penguins sweep of Carolina and is gaining traction as one of the top goalies in the game. Chris Osgood continues to defy all laws of logic that suggest a player simply can’t just turn it on once the playoffs begin. He has been a pillar on a team that needs its goalie to only be good, not great. But the fact of the matter is the Red Wings and Penguins have given up almost exactly the same number of shots per game in this year’s playoffs and Osgood has been statistically better than Fleury in every department. Edge: Detroit


There’s an interesting little back story here. Dan Bylsma was a utility forward on the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim back in 2003 when they lost the Cup final in seven games to the New Jersey Devils. The coach of that Ducks team? Mike Babcock, of course. Babcock earned his stripes as an NHL coach a long time ago and remains one of the top bench bosses in the league, both in terms of preparing his team and making adjustments during games and series. Bylsma has done almost everything right since taking over the Penguins, going a combined 30-8-4 in the regular season and the playoffs so far. But Babcock’s experience probably tilts the ice in his favor. Edge: Detroit

When these two teams met for the first time this season back in November, the Penguins trailed by two goals with less than five minutes remaining, but ended up winning the game in overtime. You get the sense the Pens really wanted a rematch with the Red Wings and feel they’re much better equipped to beat them than they were last year. And they are. Both teams had the benefit of a relatively easy conference final and are at the top of their games. To be sure, the final has the potential to be the most entertaining we’ve seen in years, and that’s actually saying something.


There are some parallels between this series and 1984, when the Edmonton Oilers faced the New York Islanders in the final for the second straight spring and won the Stanley Cup. The only difference – and it’s a major one - is the Islanders were a dynasty in demise and the Red Wings are a dynasty that is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, they’re getting better. The reality is this is a pick ‘em series and we’re picking the champs to repeat. In the end, experience, poise and home ice advantage will be the deciding factors in the series. Detroit in seven.