Relieved Red Wings Win Cup

June 5, 2008 10:09:03 AM PDT
The NHL doesn't plan to retrofit the Stanley Cup with wings. Put it on permanent display in the Motor City. Or, to save time each spring, engrave the Red Wings' names on it before the playoffs begin. Doesn't matter, because many seasons turn out the same. Salary caps, signings and shrewd drafting can transform a team from terrible into a title-winner in a matter of months, yet the Detroit Red Wings remain the champions of consistency and resiliency.

And, for the fourth time in 11 seasons, simply the NHL's champions.

The Red Wings raised hockey's most cherished prize yet again Wednesday night, easing past the young, determined but not-quite-good enough Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in a decisive Game 6 that, just like a breathtaking Game 5 two nights before, featured a desperation rally, a near-miracle finish and a season's worth of tension.

Only the Penguins couldn't finish this comeback, despite getting a goal with 1:27 remaining and nearly scoring again in the very last second. Nor could they get the finals back to Detroit for a Game 7 that would have tested the old-but-good Red Wings' resolve and character.

Not that there was any question the Red Wings have plenty of both, after they put together an excellent defensive game and just enough offense to bounce back from a devastating, draining 3-2 loss in Game 5 in which Pittsburgh scored the tying goal with 35 seconds left and the game winner in the third overtime.

"It's been a long way, it's been a long season," playoffs MVP Henrik Zetterberg said. "A few nights ago in Joe Louis Arena was devastating, but we found a way to battle back."

So did the Penguins, whose median age is far lower than the Red Wings' yet, after losing by a combined 7-0 in the first two games in Detroit, played four consecutive one-goal games against them. Only a handful of Penguins have won the Cup; five Red Wings won their fourth Stanley Cup with Detroit.

"I think we have a great team, too," said Penguins star Evgeni Malkin, who finally scored his first goal of the series. "We learned, first of all, we can compete with anybody. ... I think we have a good future."

The Penguins can only hope that future is as good as the Red Wings' immediate past. The Red Wings won Cups in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008, a remarkable accomplishment given nearly one-fourth of their roster has been with them for all four.

"I've been asked all along about this team in comparison to the other teams that won. Now I'm not afraid to say this is probably the best team that we've had here and the best team front to back," Darren McCarty said. "It's just unbelievable."

So was the finish.

The Penguins' comeback in Game 5 was near-impossible. Remarkably, this rally almost topped that, with a final-second flurry that, if the Penguins had pulled it off, would have been straight out of fantasyland.

Down 3-1 after goalie Marc-Andre Fleury accidentally pushed Zetterberg's shot into his own net 7½ minutes into the third period, the Penguins cut Detroit's lead to one goal when Marian Hossa deflected Sergei Gonchar's shot past Chris Osgood with 87 seconds remaining. That's 87, as in captain Sidney Crosby's number.

C'mon, the Penguins couldn't do this again. Or could they?

With the clock ticking down and Red Wings fans already celebrating - hey, sound familiar? - Crosby threw a backhander on net that Hossa swiped at from alongside the right post. The puck skittered across the crease, no doubt causing many in Hockeytown to gasp, but couldn't find the net.

"I thought the chance might have been there," said Crosby, who tied with Zetterberg as the top scorer in the playoffs with 27 points. "Unfortunately, it didn't go in."

The sigh of relief was heard from Dearborn to Grosse Pointe.

"It was chaotic the last 40 seconds," said Osgood, who allowed only 30 goals in 19 games after replacing Dominik Hasek during the first round. "Crosby was flying. I knew it was a good backhander. I tried to get out as far as I could, and it ended up hitting my arm. ... I was happy to see the ref yell `Time' when I looked up."

That close to another overtime. That close to a Game 7 in Detroit. That close to ... well, who knows what? The next time, co-owner Mario Lemieux said, the Penguins don't plan to be close.

"We've come a long way," Lemieux said of a team that, only two years ago, was the NHL's second worst. "I'm sure the next time Sid gets there and Malkin and all these guys, they'll know what to do."

The best thing they could do would be to emulate the Red Wings, whose scorers such as Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen also pay the price to be exceptional defensive players. Crosby and Malkin may see Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom in their nightmares for months, after the two Red Wings clamped down on them for much of the series.

Zetterberg and Franzen also tied for the playoffs lead with 13 goals each.

"Someone said to me earlier, you turned your best offensive players into checkers," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "They're just very good both ways and deliver offensively."

Their defensemen also deliver offensively, with Lidstrom's defensive partner, Brian Rafalski, scoring the game's first goal on a power play with about five minutes gone. A few minutes after that, Detroit killed off the Penguins' second lengthy 5-on-3 advantage in as many games in Pittsburgh. In the second period, Valtteri Filppula made it 2-0 off a Mikael Samuelsson rebound with about eight minutes gone.

While the Red Wings' 11 Stanley Cups are the most for a United States-based team, perhaps this title deserves an asterisk. The Cup will be spending plenty of time in Sweden, home to seven of the Red Wings' top players, including Conn Smythe Award winner Zetterberg and Lidstrom, the first European captain of a Cup winner.

Detroit is third overall in Stanley Cup titles, trailing fellow Original Six teams Montreal and Toronto.

What is Swedish for dynasty?

"I watched Steve Yzerman hoist it three times in the past, and I'm very proud of being the first European," said Lidstrom, the NHL's most accomplished defenseman. "I'm very proud of being a captain of the Red Wings."

Naturally, the Red Wings won on the road, where they closed out their previous three playoff rounds. They did so in a building, Mellon Arena, that opened in 1961 and has been the Penguins' home since 1967 but had never before hosted a Cup-clinching game.

Penguins fans chanted "Let's Go Pens" one last time as they watched the Red Wings joyously celebrating behind their net, but they politely applauded during the Stanley Cup presentation.

The Penguins have two more seasons to play there before they open their new arena across the street, and their goal is to make sure this wasn't Mellon's last Cup finals.

The Penguins took the loss hard, even though many are in their early 20s and should have plenty more Stanley Cup runs left in them. More than 2½ hours after the game ended, Crosby's car was still in its usual spot, an indication the Penguins' disappointed captain hadn't left the building.

By then, the Cup had vanished, headed back to Motown for a victory parade Friday.

"It's been unbelievable, the whole series," Zetterberg said. "It's tough when we lost the last game. But we battled through that and came back and played unbelievable."