George Foster 6/1/09
End of an era for the Red Wings
What do we have to do in order to get respect around here? The Detroit Red Wings have now played in 6 of the last 15 Stanley Cup Finals, a virtual dynasty in the modern era of hockey.
Yet, outside the good state of Michigan, the Red Wings are a decided underdog to the Pittsburgh Penguins in these Finals. Why? Because in a league dominated by celebrated players with matinee idol looks in their early 20s, Detroit is old school, literally.
For starters, 36 year-old Chris Osgood has played goalie for what seems like an eternity. Ossie tended the nets in Detroits first Stanley Cup Final of this era when he was a lad in his early 20s. Supporting Osgood, at 39, Nicklas Lidstrom may still be the best defenseman in the league and captains the Wings.
Detroits regular lineup includes a host of grizzled veterans such Kris Draper, the teams best face-off performer and a ripe 38 years old. Brian Rafalski at 35 is the Wings second best defenseman. Ten players 30 and older make up the core of Detroits best players certainly the oldest squad in the league.
Quickly now - who is the oldest Red Wings player of all-time? The answer is current defenseman Chris Chelios, of course. Chelios is an amazing 47 years old, the second oldest player of all time in the National Hockey League (NHL) and still feisty.
If you guessed Gordie Howe as the oldest Wing, you are so wrong. It is true that Howe was the Methuselah of the professional hockey, still productive at 52, the oldest player ever to lace up a pair of skates in the NHL. Howe left the Red Wings earlier in his career at 42, though, making Chelios technically the oldest Wings player ever.
The upstart Penguins have been on a roll since the end of the regular season and have probably played the best hockey of any team in the NHL since then. Pittsburgh comes into the Finals with arguably the two most talented and hyped players in the sport. Sidney Crosby at 21 and Evgeni Malkin at 22 are considered cinch hockey Hall-of-Famers and play on a rising team.
Of course, Pittsburgh is the same team that gave the Red Wings fits in last years Finals before succumbing to the greybeards of Detroit. This season the Red Wings are a year older and dinged up physically. Key performers Pavel Datsyuk, Jonathan Ericksson, Lidstrom, and Draper have all missed the last several playoff games.
The Penguins should be licking their chops to take on the short-handed Red Wings, right? Not so fast. Sidney Crosby (know as Cindy Crybaby in some circles) and Evgeni Stop-Talkin Malkin have a lot to prove. Both disappeared at times during last years Finals in a losing cause against the Red Wings.
Malkins excuse for his subpar play last year was that he was tired from all of the seasons practices and playoff games. Poor baby does he really think no one else had to deal with fatigue in a hockey playoff schedule that extends well into June? Buck up man, you are only 22 years old. You should be able to skate all day, every day.
On the other hand, you will hear no excuses from Motown. The Red Wings may be old, undersized, injured, and physically tired, but what sets them apart is their mental toughness. The Detroit hockey team plays its best with their backs to the wall - when they are expected to lose. In Game Four at Chicago, with their injured, inactive list at its peak, the Wings played their best game of the playoffs, beating the Black Hawks 6-1.
Say good-bye now because many of the current Red Wings players that we have grown to admire will be gone by next season. A combination of advanced ages and salary cap considerations will force Red Wings management to cut loose the core group of players that have served this team well since the mid-1990s. Such stalwarts as Osgood, Draper, Kirk Maltby, and even Lidstrom may never wear the red wheel on their jerseys again. Stars Marian Hossa and Chelios could also being playing their last games for Detroit in this series.
We are getting ahead of ourselves, though. As we go to press before the start of the finals, it is time for a fearless prediction. Before this chapter is completely closed on the Red Wings, get ready to anoint Detroit as the NHL champs one more time.
In these finals, expect the Red Wings to lose the first two games at home and be given up for dead. By winning the next four, a resilient Detroit squad will again prevail over the Penguins in six games.
Though this season marks the end of a Red Wings era, it will be a memorable Stanley Cup victory for Detroit hockey fans.