Friday, May 23, 2008

Your Finals Progonosto -- Red Wings vs. Penguins

Well, we’re finally here. The Finals. Hockeytown and Hokeytown…

Detroit Red Wings (1) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2)

OK, OK…we couldn’t help ourselves. It’s the Red Wings and the Penguins, two teams that did not play against each other in the regular season, which lends a bit of mystery to this series. But it really isn’t a mystery that these teams are facing off against one another now. Statistically, they are 1-2 in just about everything. Not only that, they dominate the top of the statistical charts. Look at how far back the third place team is in these assorted measures…

There are also the “onlys,” as in…

In their 12 wins, Pittsburgh has been involved in only two one-goal games, Detroit only four.

Detroit has lost only one game in 12 when leading after one period…Pittsburgh not at all in seven.

Both teams are undefeated when leading after two periods.

Pittsburgh has trailed at the first intermission only twice…Detroit only once.

The two have split only six occurrences in which they’ve trailed after two periods…in a combined 30 games played.

And, there are the “did you know” items…

Did you know that Detroit has six three-goal-or-more winning margins among its 12 wins?

Did you know Pittsburgh is the only team in the entire tournament with a perfect record in one-goal games?...they’ve only had two, though.

Did you know that Pittsburgh has five empty net goals in 14 games?

Did you know that Detroit is +15 in goal differential in the first period of games (23-8)? Only one other team has scored as many as 15 first period goals in the tournament (it’s not Pittsburgh, either).

Did you know that Pittsburgh – in 12 wins so far – has eight different players with game-winning goals?

Did you know that Detroit has four shorthanded goals on the road? No other team has more than two shorthanded goals, total.

Did you know that Pittsburgh leads the tournament in home plus-minus? (+12)…and that Detroit leads in road plus-minus? (+11)

Did you know that Detroit has eight players with at least ten points?

Did you know that Pittsburgh has only two players averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time a game?

Let’s go back to that graphic up at the top…those are the obvious numbers. Pittsburgh is marginally superior to Detroit in most of them, as befits a team that is 12-2 so far in the playoffs. What about some of the less obvious measures…

Hits. Three Penguins – Brooks Orpik, Ryan Malone, and Jarkko Ruutu rank 4th, 5th, and 11th, respectively, in hits. The highest ranking Red Wing is 18th…Pavel Datsyuk.

Blocked Shots. You’ll find five Penguins – Orpik, Sergei Gonchar, Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi, and Kris Letang – on the leader list before you find a Red Wing (Brad Stuart, tied with Letang). Of course, this might be a function on how the Red Wings limit opponents’ chances.

Takeaway/giveaway ratio. So far, only one Penguin forward has been relatively loose with the puck, measure as a takeaway-to-giveaway ratio of less than 1.00 – Evgeni Malkin. Detroit has three – Mikael Samuelsson, Darren McCarty, and Tomas Holmstrom.

The top four faceoff men for the Red Wings (by draws taken) are a combined 58.5 percent in winning percentage. None of them have a losing record. The Penguins’ top four are a combined 47.5 percent, and only Jordan Staal has a winning record…he’d be tied for fourth on the Red Wings.

At this point of the season, we’re supposed to say that this will all come down to goaltending. Well, it won’t – not directly, that is. Statistically, Marc-Andre Fleury for Pittsburgh and Chris Osgood for Detroit are almost mirror images of one another. The tale of the tape (their rank in parentheses)…

There is where the similarities end. How these two got to the top of the heap in the playoffs is a different as a penguin and an octopus. Both teams have averaged a combination of 60 shots per game (those on goal and those allowed on goal) over the course of the playoffs. The Penguins seem more accommodating in terms of trading chances. Their shot differential advantage of 4.4 shots ranks them a respectable fourth among all 16 teams in the tournament, but their superior offensive talent has permitted them to engage in such a war of attrition with teams. It was perhaps no more clearly on display than in the series against the Rangers.

In Game 1, the Rangers stormed out to a 3-0 lead, only to watch as the Penguins scored two goals 14 seconds apart in the second period to launch them on a four goal onslaught spanning 16:47 of the second and third periods. Even when the Rangers managed to tie the game, the Penguins had an answer in the end with Evgeni Malkin scoring the game-winner with 1:41 left in regulation.

In Game 3, the teams traded haymakers over the first half of the contest, the score tied at three after Jaromir Jagr scored with less than seven minutes in the third period. But Pittsburgh put it away with a late second period goal, then a marker early in the third for a 5-3 win.

Pittsburgh is like a three-year old at Churchill Downs who lays back in the pack over the first three-quarters of a mile. But late speed and a strong finish in the stretch provides a comfortable margin of victory…it the Penguins’ case, 1.78 goals/game.

But that style makes Fleury have to play the position more – he will see chances. And in that respect, he has – in this tournament – shaken off the “underachiever” tag he brought with him from previous playoff experiences in the AHL and in his first appearance last year.

On the other hand, the Red Wings have split those 60 shots by roughly 36-for and 24-against. They do not trade chances with other teams. Only once in 16 games had an opponent outshot Detroit – game 3 in the opening series against Nashville. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Red Wings lost that game, 5-3, surrendering their highest number of goals in any game in the playoffs. That has the effect of forcing teams to expend effort defending (and chasing) the Red Wings, and it places considerable pressure on opposing goalies, who have to play that much better knowing that they will face far more chances on average than will Osgood.

Detroit is like that octopus, winding its tentacles around an opponent, gradually getting an advantage, tightening its grip on the puck, and before too long, the opponent is looking up at a 3-1 or 4-1 hole, tired and beaten.

The result is that Osgood hasn't had to “play” his position as much as has Fleury in the playoffs, but he’s had to have the mental strength to maintain his focus. He has done so, having allowed one or no goals in six of the 12 full games in which he’s played.

If there is one player in this series, more than any other, on whom the outcome might depend, it is Johan Franzen for Detroit. Through 11 games, Franzen was 12-3-15, +9, with five game-winning goals. But he was scratched for the last five games of the conference final against Dallas with concussion-symptoms. The Wings were 3-2 in those games and were held to 13 goals (2.60/game) after scoring 42 in their first 11 games (3.82/game).

Franzen’s presence would give the Penguins something they haven’t seen much of, if at all in the playoffs thus far – two solid scoring lines playing at the top of their game. But Franzen has not been cleared medically for game one. That is the window of opportunity for the Penguins here. Stealing one against the Red Wings in Detroit early would be a huge boost of confidence for a young team. It might not make a lot of difference to the Wings, who are experienced enough to know it’s first to four, not first to one, but getting out fast could give the Penguins the edge.

These are teams with very similar results, arrived at in somewhat different ways. Pittsburgh has a more physical dimension to their play and have simply pulverized opponents. Detroit has taken the long view in games and in series, using a methodical puck-possession scheme that it plays to near perfection to deny opportunities to opponents. The big guys – Crosby and Datsyuk, Malkin and Zetterberg, Gonchar and Lidstrom – will probably all be heavily represented at the top of the statistical lists. But it might come down to the little things – those that the next tier players provide (Holmstrom’s ability to raise a fuss in front of the net, the Red Wings’ faceoff skills; Gary Robert’s force-of-nature style, Ryan Malone’s grit) and the ability of the stars to play solid two-way games.

Why Detroit will win...

The Red Wings have been here before, and you have to be here to get there. What do we mean by that? Look at the team to which this Penguin team is most often compared – in style and in age: the Edmonton Oilers of the mid 1980’s. Much has been made that the Oiler team that beat the Islanders in 1984 for their first Stanley Cup was young (as are the Penguins) and supremely talented (as are the Penguins). Well, the Oilers lost in the final in the previous year with their core players – Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Kevin Lowe, Charlie Huddy, Grant Fuhr – getting their baptism.

How that will be reflected here is in the Red Wings doing more of the little things – faceoffs, winning the turnover battles, etc. – better than will the Penguins…a product of their immense experience.

Why the Penguins will win...

Strangely, this could be the Penguins’ best chance to win a Cup over the next several years. The reason for that is that they have in place the one thing they sorely lacked – a scoring winger in Marian Hossa. Hossa, who is an unrestricted free agent after this season – one who will command a high seven-figure salary, might not return next year. But in this moment, he is casting off the bitter taste of his performance in last year’s playoffs (one assist and -6 in a four-game sweep in the opening round) with a vengeance. His 9-10-19, +7, in 14 games gives the Penguins the oomph from the wing that they needed to complement their talent and depth down the middle.

In the end…

The old saying goes, “age before beauty.” What “age” has given the Red Wings is comfort in playing a simple, elegant, efficient game. The rambunctious Penguins – as we have pointed out in an earlier round – have a lot more moving parts to their game. At this point, that means they still probably depend more on talent than execution (which is not to say they are undisciplined, just not in Detroit’s class in that respect). This will manifest itself in terms of the Red Wings being able to play their game more and for longer stretches than the Penguins will theirs. That, in the end, will be the difference.

Red Wings in six.