Maybe we have been looking at the 2009 Stanley Cup final all wrong. You know, all that talk about the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins being the first repeat finalists in 25 years, since the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers crossed dynasties in the early eighties. The expectation was that history would repeat itself: that the Penguins, like the Oilers, would redeem themselves after losing in the final one year by capturing the championship the following spring.
And, yes, it still might happen. The Penguins are headed back home to Pittsburgh, desperately needing a win tonight to force a winner-takes-all seventh game in Detroit. Even if the Pens pull off the comeback, though, the comparison to the Isles and Oilers does not really stand up. For starters, the Isles swept the Oilers in 83, only to see Edmonton roar back and claim the cup in just five games the following year.
Neither series was close or compelling, despite the presence of Wayne Gretzky, Bryan Trottier and Mark Messier. The two Detroit-Pittsburgh finals have featured some great games - the first two contests last year and Game Five this time round are the only exceptions. Both series have had their share of intrigue and memorable moments. Plus, both of the Pens-Wings finals have gone to six games. Detroit have been in charge in both years, but the end result has been in doubt.
So if the ice hockey is actually better this time around than 25 years ago, what is there to complain about? Well, no one is complaining? we're explaining. The biggest reason the Pens-Wings finals have been nothing like the Isles-Oilers battles is because the Oilers were on their way up, while the Islanders were peaking and then (quickly) falling back to earth. That is not the case with Pittsburgh-Detroit.
The Penguins-Oilers comparison is fair: both teams feature young superstars who are learning on the job. But the Wings-Islanders parallel is as crooked as Tim Hunter's nose. After losing to Edmonton in '84, the Islanders pretty much disappeared from the play-off picture ever since. The Wings, meanwhile, are a perpetual winning machine, seemingly capable of rotating players in and out of the line-up with minimal disruption. While the Islanders got old fast, the Wings are always ready - and somehow, able - to replace ageing stars like Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan with newer versions such as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg.
Detroit do not depend on just two or three superstars to lead the way: they are deep in talent, deep in grit and deep in the play-offs once again. Forget the Islanders and Oilers. They are irrelevant. You have got to back further, another generation or so, to find a more appropriate precursor. How far back? Right back to the '50s, back to 1954, '55 and '56 to be precise. Because next year, when the Wings and Penguins are competing for a third consecutive spring for the right to hoist the Stanley Cup, everyone will be babbling about the great Canadiens-Red Wings rivalry of the mid-'50s, when the Wings won the first two cups - perhaps like the current Wings are poised to do - before the Habs got there third time lucky.
And, of course, those Habs did not stop there. That was the start of the NHL's only five-repeat dynasty, the only time the Stanley Cup has been won by the same team five years in a row. Are you listening, Sidney Crosby? firstname.lastname@example.org