May 29, 2009 at 7:17 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Toughest Finals yet, but Wings will win in 7

Detroit

This will take everything the Red Wings have and some stuff they don't have, like completely healthy bodies.

This will be the trickiest test for the Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals since they launched their dynasty in 1997. The Penguins are skating with more experience and purpose than a year ago, and with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin playing at unreal levels, their offense is legitimately scary (uh, not that the Wings are easily frightened).

These are not the fuzzy Penguins that skittered into town last spring with a young goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, who famously tripped and fell as he stepped onto the ice for Game 1. The symbolism became reality as the Wings won the first two games by a combined 7-0, and if not for that monumental triple-overtime loss, would have taken the series in five.

This Final will not end in five. Or six. It's going the full thrilling seven, and it'll go to the team with the most uh, I'll finish that thought in a second.

The Penguins have two big advantages. Their names are Crosby and Malkin, and they have more goals and points than anyone in the playoffs. The Wings' best players change every other night, although Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Dan Cleary have been pretty darn consistent.

Health matters

To repeat as champs, of course the Wings have to get some bodies back. They desperately need Nicklas Lidstrom to return (a decent bet for Game 1), as well as Pavel Datsyuk (possible). Jonathan Ericsson (appendectomy) and Kris Draper (groin) probably won't be sidelined long, but hey it's hockey, and for all we know, they're actually recovering from upper-body organ transplants.

The Wings don't count on two players to do amazing things, but they do have a few key advantages of their own. One is depth -- depth of talent, depth of experience, depth of knowledge.

Another is one that nobody ever says, but I'm going to say it -- Chris Osgood.

Already the most-underappreciated clutch performer in recent history, Osgood looks as good and determined as ever. He's 36 and has won three Stanley Cups (two as a starter). His goals-against average (2.06) and save percentage (.925) are much better than the 24-year-old Fleury's, so isn't it time we acknowledge the goalie matchup tilts toward the Wings?

The Marian Hossa factor is fascinating too, but while it transferred a fine scoring threat to the Wings, I think it sent a chunk of incentive the other way. The Penguins already were miffed at last year's result. They'd already fed their hunger by watching the Wings skate with the Cup on Pittsburgh ice. Then one of their stars spurns a lucrative offer and jumps to the champs for the stated reason that it's his best chance to win a Cup?

Oh yes, the Penguins will use it in all those intangible ways that actually matter in hockey. What Hossa must do is ignore it, and then play like he did for the Penguins in last year's playoffs, when he had 26 points (he has 12 now).

The Penguins have changed a lot since then, dumping shrieky coach Michel Therrien for young Dan Bylsma at midseason, when it appeared they might not even make the playoffs. They added valuable Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz, but their defense, led by Brooks Orpik and achy-kneed Sergei Gonchar, is less than imposing.

This won't be easy

One thing hasn't changed: The Wings still are the better team. Although last year's matchup ended in a taut Game 6, the Wings outshot the Penguins by an average of 37-24 and held Malkin to one measly goal. Crosby (two goals, four assists) was decent, but Zetterberg was much better.

If this were not a rematch, I'd love the Wings' chances. But I do believe in the power of redemption and the hype of hunger. I also believe in the reality of health, and the NHL's bizarre schedule, with back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday nights (admittedly, a better option than an eight-day layoff), definitely works against the Wings.

That's another reason this is the most-daunting Finals test for the Wings since they resumed winning championships in 1997, after New Jersey swept them in '95. The Wings swept Philadelphia in '97, swept Washington in '98, beat Carolina in five in 2002 and edged Pittsburgh in six last spring.

It's getting tougher to hang on and hold off the kids. It'll be really difficult if Datsyuk and Lidstrom don't return to full health. Depth is a great weapon but you don't want to use it every single game.

If not for the injuries, the mighty Wings would be heavy favorites. They're 12-4 in these playoffs with all four losses by one goal (two in overtime). Crosby still is only 21 and Malkin's 22. Luckily for the Wings, the NHL is not the NBA, where superstars follow a natural ascension, no matter how balanced the opposition. Their time is coming, but not yet, young fellas. Wings in seven.

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