For Pens, Wings a lot rides on rematch
Detroit and Pittsburgh have met in each of the past two Stanley Cup finals series, with Pittsburgh winning the most recent in a dramatic Game 7. Monday night, the teams meet for the second, and final, time of the regular season in a nationally televised game (Versus, TSN 7 p.m. EDT) that dominates the three-game schedule for the night.
For each, the stakes are much higher than the first meeting of the season, a 2-1 shootout victory by the Penguins in Pittsburgh. That game, the first since Pittsburgh hoisted the Cup on Joe Louis Arena ice in mid June after a Game 7 win, was about reminiscing.
Monday night's game is about Stanley Cup Playoffs positioning.
The defending Stanley Cup champions are returning to the postseason, but they are in a dog fight with the New Jersey Devils for the Atlantic Division crown and a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Penguins (42-24-6, 90 points) hold a two-point lead on the Devils (42-25-4), who have played one less game.
Things are even more desperate for the Red Wings, though. Detroit has needed a red-hot month of March just to get into the playoff picture. Monday, Detroit (35-23-13, 83 points) holds just a two-point lead on ninth-place Calgary, which has played one more game. In fact, Monday's game against Pittsburgh is Detroit's game in hand.
For Pittsburgh, Monday's trip to Joe Louis Arena should be some much-needed motivation for the stretch run. The last time the Penguins were on the ice surface there, they were partying with the Stanley Cup after erasing series two-games-to-none and three-games-to-two deficits against the defending champs along the way.
"It's a rivalry game," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma told penguins.com. "It's a team that we have played a lot in the last year, especially in some meaningful games. We'll have a good memory walking into the arena to start off with."
Perhaps nobody will have fonder memories than goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who allowed just one goal in each of the final two games of the Final, allowing his team to forge a pair of 2-1 victories that delivered the Cup to Pittsburgh.
"I think we have had our share of good battles at that rink and a nice celebration at the end (last year)," Fleury said. "I'm sure it will feel great to get back out there. They are always intense games with these games. We have had good games against them in the past and are looking forward to facing them again."
But, the Penguins say the trip down memory lane will be done by the end of the pre-game warm-ups.
"I am sure that will cross your mind when you first get there," Crosby told the website. "I think pretty quickly you get focused on the game and don’t think about that stuff."
This game could be troublesome for the Red Wings, though. As a result, the Wings have no plans to think about what could have been, but rather concentrate on what must be down the stretch this time around.
Traditionally, the Wings -- like most teams -- do not play well in the first game back from a trip to the West Coast.
On Jan. 12, three nights after beating San Jose, 4-1, the Red Wings were out of synch in a 6-0 loss to the New York Islanders. On Feb. 9, again on three-day's rest after playing Los Angeles, Detroit dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to St. Louis. Both the Islanders and Blues are not presently in the playoff picture.
This time, the Red Wings decided to stay overnight after the win against Vancouver on Saturday and fly home Sunday morning, instead of after the game, which is the more traditional method. They hope the change in philosophy pays off Monday
Regardless, Mike Babcock says his team will be against it and have to fight through some adversity if they hope to continue their push for the playoffs.
"It's a long travel day," Babcock told Ansar Kahn of Booth News. "Time changes are tough. It's going to be a hard game, but we have to be mentally prepared.''
Babcock has liked a lot of what he has seen from his team in recent days. The Red Wings took five of six points on their three-game West Coast trip and are 7-2-1 since the Olympic break. Plus, the team has prospered recently without the services of Dan Cleary (groin) and Pat Eaves (head), both of whom are day-to-day at this point, but will miss Monday night's game.
Henrik Zetterberg has been one of the players carrying Detroit down the stretch. In Saturday's win, he scored the deciding goal 0.3 seconds remaining in OT. He also had an assist in the game and fired off nine shots.
Saturday night, Babcock talked about the chemistry that Zetterberg has shown with Valtteri Filppula, his linemate for the past two weeks. Zetterberg has 2 goals and 7 points during that stretch, while Filppula has a Goal and 3 points.
"(Zetterberg) has been a lot better since he started playing with Fil," Babcock told Kahn. "He seems to have turned the corner. He's feeling better about his game. All athletes, I don't care how good you are, confidence is fleeting. It's great to have it back."
But Zetterberg is not the only one going. Look at these post-Olympic break numbers: Zetterberg has 12 points in the 10 games. Pavel Datsyuk has 11, Tomas Holmstrom, back from injury, has added nine. Defensemen Brian Rafalski and Nick Lidstrom both have eight points.
With the big guns going, the Red Wings most closely resemble the team Pittsburgh has faced in each of the past two Final series, a team that features two scoring lines and a dominant defense. The biggest difference might be Jimmy Howard in net.
Yet, Howard is a legitimate candidate for the Calder Trophy as the game's top goalie and he was brilliant the last time these teams met, making 46 saves in the shootout loss.