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Cup confrontation has become a war of wills

Monday, 06.08.2009 / 4:12 PM / News
By Mike G. Morreale
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Cup confrontation has become a war of wills
PITTSBURGH – Red Wings general manager Ken Holland pondered and then smiled when asked about the star-powered matchup between Henrik Zetterberg and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby in the Stanley Cup finals. It's been a classic confrontation and, as it stands right now, Holland's guy is winning the battle.

Zetterberg, deemed worn down by some Pens players just two days ago, has not only posted two goals and six points in five games against Pittsburgh, but has played a huge part in limiting Crosby to a mere mortal-like goal and two assists. Crosby entered this best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final series with 14 goals in 17 games.

"Sid is going to get his points, but it's just a matter of limiting the damage and Henrik has done just that," Holland said. "The thing I love about Henrik is that he not only has talent but incredible will."

That comment provides an insight into how the Red Wings as an organization and Holland as GM evaluate and pick players. The Wings are looking for willpower no matter what round. Zetterberg, if you can believe it here in 2009, was the 210th pick a decade ago, going in the seventh round in the 1999 Entry Draft. 

You can have skill, but if you don't have will and determination it's pretty tough to advance," Holland said. "At the end of the day, it was will that got us through the Anaheim series with the amount of injuries we had and knowing how mentally tough they were. We found a way to get through that series and I think our will allowed us to get through the Chicago series."

Strong will was needed by both Cup finalists to get to Game 6 here in Pittsburgh Tuesday (8 p.m. EDT).

The Wings went to the limit against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference semifinals, using a significant measure of will to overcome the absences of defenseman Brian Rafalski (upper body injury) for five games and faceoff specialist Kris Draper (upper body injury) for six. They actually trailed in the series 1-2 before winning three of the next four, including a 4-3 decision in Game 7. It marked the first seven-game series the Wings had participated in since 2002 when it defeated the Colorado Avalanche -- earning a 7-0 victory in Game 7.

Detroit was also minus future Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom for two games and forward Pavel Datsyuk (three games) against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final but were able to persevere in five games, three of which ended in overtime.

The Penguins have exhibited similar grit this postseason, rallying from a three-goal deficit in Game 6 against the Flyers to finish off their Pennsylvania rivals with a stirring 5-3 victory in Philadelphia in the opening round. Then, the club spotted the Washington Capitals a two-game series lead in the conference semifinals before winning three straight, losing Game 6 on home ice before scoring an unexpected 6-2 triumph in Washington in Game 7.

Zetterberg has not only averaged 22:12 of ice time while embracing the daunting task of containing Crosby in four of the five Cup finals games, but he's also a plus-4 in this series. Crosby is a minus-2. There's no question the return of Pavel Datsyuk --who is a finalist for both the League’s Hart Trophy as MVP and Selke Award as top defensive forward -- was also key in Detroit's 5-0 dismantling of the Penguins in Game 5 at The Joe on Saturday.

"Will is what is driving Henrik Zetterberg against Sidney Crosby and will is what gets our defense going against their top players," Holland said. "The Zetterberg-Crosby battle has been a tremendous matchup and Henrik continues to show why he's one of the best two-way players in the League."

That’s when Holland paused for a second before admitting what had been on his mind all along.

"In Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, I think we have two, if not the best two, two-way forwards in the game," he said. "And that's why we're able to do what we do."

Consistently finding players with will and determination has clearly helped Detroit to qualify for the postseason 18 consecutive seasons, plus why they topped 50-plus wins for the fourth straight season.

Pittsburgh defenseman Mark Eaton acknowledges the war of will between the Penguins and Red Wings.

Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup Final Gear "I think that's the way it was from Game 1," Eaton said. "These two teams know each other well enough from last year and have met a couple of times this year so we know what each other's about. When you get to this point, I don't think will or heart is a question for anybody. It's which team can execute their game plan better and can sustain [will] for as close to 60 minutes as possible."

Pittsburgh forward Jordan Staal agrees.

"There's will in every game -- every player wants to go out and win," Staal said. "It's that second effort and extra play that every player has to focus on in order to do the right things."

Detroit coach Mike Babcock learned long ago that indominable will and Stanley Cup rings go together.

"I think a lot of people on the outside think you just win the Cup but it doesn't quite work like that," he said. "It's hard to win and that's what makes it so great. There's a battle, a will and determination that goes on for a couple of months. If you want it bad enough and you're blessed with enough skill, you have a chance to actually win."

The Red Wings are one victory away from doing it again.


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