x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Wings v Pens final is win-win for NHL

All the blood, the sweat, the tears? and for what? To end up back where we started? It seems that way.

All the blood, the sweat, the tears? and for what? To end up back where we started? It seems that way. After 1,230 regular season games and another 80 or so in the play-offs, the NHL are back to where they were a year ago. Barring a stunning comeback by either Chicago or Carolina in the semi-finals, the Stanley Cup final will again feature the Detroit Red Wings versus the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Last year, the experienced Wings disposed of the fresh-faced Penguins in six games for Detroit's fourth cup in 11 seasons; that's about as close as it gets to a dynasty in today's 30-team, parity-packed NHL. Detroit, the last team to repeat as cup champions (in '96-97 and '97-98), have been the league's standard-bearers since Sidney Crosby was in diapers. Yes, the Wings have superstars and superlative support players, but Detroit are still greater than the sum of their impressive parts.

It is their belief in each other and relentless dedication to a high-speed, puck-possession system that sets the Wings apart. Plus, they know what it takes to win, a cliche that actually carries some meaning when it comes to the NHL post-season. And the guy who scored the most goals in the play-offs for Pittsburgh last season, Marian Hossa, is now wearing a red-and-white winged wheel on his chest after spurning a long-term offer from the Pens to sign a one-year deal with Detroit - because Hossa felt he had "a better chance to win the Stanley Cup" with the Wings than with anyone else. (A statement that made Hossa about as popular in Pittsburgh as a Philadelphia Flyer.)

And that's the 2009 Stanley Cup stage: same two teams as a year ago, and the team that won in '08 have the losing finalists' best sniper on their side this time around. So, is the title the Wings'? Not so fast. There are a few other factors to consider. Firstly, what did Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the rest of the mostly young Pens learn during last year's spring run? Will the Penguins be intimidated by the Wings, like they were in the first two games of last year's final, or will they stand up and push back, like they did in the last four games? And, are the Pens healthier than last June, when Crosby was battling an ankle sprain and Malkin virtually disappeared in the final?

The answers to these questions surely hold the key to a Pens-Wings final, but there's also another factor to consider, one that's more historical, more abstract than set-in-stone. But it's worth contemplating: The last time the same two teams played in back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, it was a passing of the torch from one dynasty to another. You have to go back 25 years, to 1982-83 and '83-84, when Mike Bossy's New York Islanders and Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers clashed in consecutive cup finals.

In '83, the grizzled Islanders won their fourth consecutive title by sweeping the upstart Oilers in four games; a year later, the Oilers had figured out what it takes to win, and dumped the Isles in five games en route to Edmonton's first of five cups over seven seasons. The fact Detroit and Pittsburgh have again survived the play-off marathon and are set to compete in consecutive finals indicates they are both very special teams.

The defending champions haven't made it back to the final since the Wings themselves turned the trick in '97 and '98, while losing finalists haven't made it back since the '84 Oilers. The 2009 final will either add to Detroit's dynasty or signal the start of a new Penguins empire; for the NHL and their fans, it's win-win either way. @Email:smccaig@thenational.ae