Thursday, May 29, 2008

Go Pens?

Glory, gloryHallelujah.

A break was necessary after the Bruins dragged me mercilessly back into caring about them in a non-sarcastic way, then left me with the Avs, who responded by giving up on the series halfway through their first game against Detroit. But there's no way I could take off a Stanley Cup Finals in which neither team is from California or the Southeast Conference. Still, I didn't expect to care, and the Penguins have won me over. It's likely because I've developed definite man-crushes on Jordan Staal, who has played with intelligence, poise, and effort way beyond someone half a year older than me, and Ryan Malone, whose gritty, "I don't care if I fall down when no one's around me" style of play should be an inspiration to his team. The latter was also the subject of this series' "Tim McCarver Award for Inexplicableness in Broadcasting" (the actual recipient of which I forget) for the following statement:
Announcer: Look at Ryan Malone's face. He's sporting all sorts of colors. Red beard, red scabs, yellow nose, black helmet...

All that aside, before the series started, it looked like this to me: Detroit should and probably would win, but Pittsburgh could win. I imagined it ending up fairly even, with Detroit sticking to their system and Pittsburgh occasionally overwhelming it to score a goal. It just wasn't clear if the Penguins were really good enough to throw the Red Wings off their game. I suspected they weren't, so it came down to a matter of which was worse: believing in the Pens and being wrong, or not giving them a chance and being right. Pens in 7 is the retrospective prediction, which is unfortunate, because the Red Wings have managed to bring their dominance to the Finals.

Anyone who's watched Detroit this year knows there shouldn't be any competition for the Jack Adams. That team is a machine. The phrase "puck possession" is beaten like a dead horse, and it doesn't do their system justice. I get the feeling it's become one of those phrases that people parrot without understanding, like "leadership qualities" or "beating a dead horse". To some people (ie Crosbunnies) it likely comes off like some elaborate game of keepaway. It's so much more, and so freaking good, that I think their system can only be explained in Chuck Norris-like expressions.

The Red Wings know where you're going with the puck, and they will get it from you.
Because they clog up dangerous areas, attacking players have to choose between settling for perimeter scoring chances, and risking a turnover in a heavily-defended area. Eventually they have to choose the latter, with a small success rate. In addition to basic positioning, Detroit also finds advantages in their opponent's game. Against Pittsburgh, for instance, they favor low coverage (sometimes with all five players below the hashmarks), knowing that the Penguins rely heavily on their forwards.

The Red Wings will pass the puck back down the ice with dazzling crispness to places you didn't even know another Red Wing was.
Their impossibly smooth transitions are the most devastating part of their game. Here's where the term "puck possession" may mislead people (if it actually does), since Detroit prefers passing, which moves the puck much faster. Yes, their forwards will carry the puck if they have space and no better options, but they usually hold on just long enough for defenders to collapse on them, opening up a quick dish to a teammate. If they can pass immediately they will, since the faster they move the play up the ice, the more likely they are to catch the defense flat-footed. However, their willingness to carry the puck (in addition to skill and positioning) is one reason they rarely make very sloppy or forced passes.

Even if you get the puck from one Red Wing, another will get it back.
Close puck support enables those quick dishes, but even more importantly it recovers control after mistakes. They've managed to turn botched attempts at offense into creative-looking plays that almost seem deliberate. Whatever the intention is, the result is overwhelming. If one player loses the puck, his teammate is right there to make sure the drive doesn't die, which can spell trouble for a defender who's accustomed to dismantling an attack with one poke check (coughHalGillcough).

The Red Wings have many tricks, and they're not afraid to use every last one of them.
Players are encouraged to, within the system, use their strengths to create chances. If Datsyuk has space, he'll twirl around you. If Franzen doesn't, he'll go through you. If both of them are stopped, Holmstrom will continue to slash your goaltender long after the whistle has blown out of the possibility that the play is a zombie and will come back to life, or because he is an asshole. They utilize their best option on the ice, no matter what it is, which forces teams to defend them by reacting, not anticipating. There's no cheating when defending against the Red Wings. And even if you do gain control of the puck, the Red Wings know where you're going with it, and they will get it from you.

I hate to praise them so irrationally, but to watch a team as confident, enthusiastic, and freakishly talented as Pittsburgh be controlled and intimidated like they were in Detroit is frustrating. Game three played out a lot like I imagined the rest of the series would. Part of me is encouraged enough to think it will turn around now. Penguins players have been saying the right things in interviews (like get the puck back to the de more) and have adjusted their forecheck a bit to be more effective. The rational part of me, however, expects the Red Wings to own the next game, seeing as they only lost the last one because they didn't play like the Red Wings (ie the Brad Stuart turnover). You never know- maybe the Penguins were really just good enough to throw Detroit off their game, and I say it's better to believe that than to believe Ryan Malone's nose is yellow and scabs are red and helmet is black for nothing. Go Pens!
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