The Bear Cave

June 12, 2009 8:28 AM

One Game Decides the Season

Since the 2008-09 NHL season began in Europe on October 4th, a whopping 1,316 games have been played. So far, six teams have won division titles, two teams have won conference championships, one team finished with the most points during the regular season, and a few players have already guaranteed themselves at least one award. However, it will be the 1,317th game that will have spectators around the country glued to the television on Friday night, as the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins battle to decide who takes home the grand prize of Lord Stanley's Cup.

With history being a valuable part of our past, we must look back before going forward. According to that history, the numbers are in favor of the Detroit Red Wings taking home their 12th Stanley Cup and fifth in 12 seasons. The major reason behind that is because home teams have typically done very well in the deciding game of the championship round. Friday night will be the 15th time that the Stanley Cup Final needs a seventh game, and only two of the previous 14 visitors have been able to skate away on top. Those two clubs were the 1945 Toronto Maple Leafs (in Detroit) and the 1971 Montreal Canadiens (in Chicago). The home teams are currently on a six-game winning streak, with four of those victories coming in this decade.

Speaking of home teams, that is the second part of history working against the Pittsburgh Penguins. This isn't exactly ancient history, but the home team has won all six games in this year's series, and the Red Wings are 11-1 at Joe Louis Arena this spring.

That being said, there is one aspect of recent history working in Pittsburgh's favor. The visiting team has won each of the last seven deciding games that have needed overtime. That might not be the most encouraging note for those passionate fans from either city, but it is a fact, and the Penguins needed to have at least one statistic in their favor.

Now, all of those numbers and facts are wonderful, and they certainly give an appreciation to hockey's past. However, what does it mean in terms of Friday night's seventh and deciding game in Michigan? Absolutely nothing. Teams throughout the years have both defended and defied history. Most importantly, hockey is decided on the ice, and anything can happen on any given day.

One of the most commonly uttered statements heading into an important game is that the star players must be the star players. That mainly fits the bill in sports such as basketball, where scoring is more of a regular occurrence. But, it does tie into hockey nicely as well.

Although both teams will need that fact to be true in order to have success, the spotlight shines brighter on the Penguins. Without question, Pittsburgh's top line of Sidney Crosby, Bill Guerin, and Chris Kunitz needs to be better. Most of the blame from the media has landed on Crosby's shoulders, as the face of the league has only been able to produce three points in six games. Those points came while the Penguins were at home in games three and four, meaning Crosby is scoreless in three games at Detroit. On the other hand, Guerin and Kunitz each have one point in the series. That's not exactly the production expected from two veteran scorers.

While the top line has struggled, the Penguins have gotten significant production from Evgeni Malkin. Malkin has played with plenty of fire in the series, while posting two goals and five assists for seven points in the six games.

Crosby's superstar status will gain most of the attention, but the Red Wings also have a notable name who has yet to make his presence felt in this series. Although he does have three assists listed on the stat sheet, Marian Hossa hasn't exactly made the Penguins regret letting him go last summer. If Hossa goes scoreless in game seven and Pittsburgh wins, he will likely gain a significant amount of focus from both sides.

While Hossa serves as Detroit's primary negative, Henrik Zetterberg has been an enormous positive. The general thought right now is that Chris Osgood stands as the favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Red Wings take home the championship. However, Zetterberg has also been a serious difference maker in this series. His two goals and four assists have contributed to the offense, and his ability to shut down Sidney Crosby on the defensive end is nothing short of impressive.

Another area that tends to earn a load of attention this time of year is goaltending. Once again, Pittsburgh tends to be on the whipping side of this equation, as Marc-Andre Fleury has had some questionable performances in Detroit. Fleury gave up some rather soft goals during the first two games, before getting pulled out of game five for allowing the red light to flash a handful of times. That being said, the 24-year old has done well at Mellon Arena, practically carrying the Penguins to victory in game six on Tuesday. Simply put, Fleury has to be sharp for Pittsburgh to have a shot, as the Red Wings will be buzzing from the drop of the puck.

On Detroit's side, Chris Osgood has had a terrific series. Although he has come up on the short end in three of the six games, he has certainly given his team a chance to win. Take game six for example, as the Penguins outplayed the Red Wings, especially during the first period. If Osgood wasn't on his game from the beginning, there could have been consecutive blowouts in opposite directions. If there's one area that could use improvement from the 36-year old, it is when things become scrambly in and around the crease. Pittsburgh has benefited a few times from loose pucks and rebounds. Other than that, the message to Osgood is not to change a thing.

On a personal note, one of my favorite aspects in deciding games is the non-superstar player who makes a statement. This could be a defenseman such as Rob Scuderi, who made two enormous saves at the end of game six to help secure Pittsburgh's victory. It could also be a forward such as Darren Helm, who netted the overtime goal to eliminate the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final. The latter category is the more exciting one, as the player and the moment will likely be remembered for years to come.

So, here we are - one game left to determine who wins the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. Right now, we don't know anything. On Friday night, one team will be skating around the ice with hats, shirts, and a 35-pound trophy. Who will it be? Find out when the puck drops at 8:00!

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