By Michael Farber,

In the interest of fairness and responsibility, we must first genuflect in the direction of the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1975 New York Islanders, the St. Judes of the playoffs, the patron saints of NHL no-hopers like the 2008 Dallas Stars, who probably wish the 33-year-gap between miracles is not a happenstance but a pattern and that they, too, can rally from a 3-0 series deficit.

So you ask, can the Stars, whipped 5-2 at home Monday by the Red Wings, really rally against Detroit after being outclassed for the third straight game in the Western Conference final?

I have a better question.

Who do you like: Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg (above, left) and Pavel Datsyuk (above, right) or Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?

Sure, this question presupposes a Red Wings-Penguins final -- be still, those fluttering NHL hearts -- but there is no reason not to get ahead of ourselves, just as there is no reason the Red Wings shouldn't be ahead of overmatched and outworked Dallas. Although it has more business to which it must attend, Pittsburgh handled its two opening home games against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference final fairly comfortably; so there is no reason not to ponder the most inviting matchup in the Stanley Cup final since Colorado faced New Jersey in 2001.

Based on the current Zetterberg-Datsyuk vs. Crosby-Malkin evidence -- 35 playoff points for the Red Wings pair, 34 for the precocious Penguins -- the answer is no clearer than Surf vs. Turf. This is a matter of personal preference, although the fact that the two young Pittsburgh centers play on different lines might give them an advantage in the minds of many. In Game 1 against the Flyers, Malkin ruled. When Malkin receded in Game 2 -- he shied away from contact and made a weak pass at the blue line that Mike Richards turned into a short-handed goal -- Crosby dominated. You can get away from them, but not often. At least one of them will be on the ice two-thirds of the game; they join forces on power plays.

But after Datsyuk's hat trick and the back-breaking shorthanded goal by Zetterberg Monday, the smart money leans toward the dazzling Detroit linemates, whose synchronicity has them dancing all over the Stars. They entered Game 3 with 25 shots between them, one more than all the Dallas forwards. They left it with three points each, a display of virtuosity that was redolent of Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy or any pair of post-expansion linemates you care to name. They scored five-on-five, four-on-four, four-on-five. They each scored on a backhand. They looked like they were playing against the Washington Generals.

For sheer beauty, the 25-foot backhand that Datsyuk blew off the post past Stars goalie Marty Turco for Detroit's first goal probably was the most exceptional. But the most significant goal was Zetterberg's short-hander with the Stars trailing by only one and having the advantage of a fresh ice for a power play at the start of the third period. On a play begun by goalie Chris Osgood -- he is now 9-0 as a starter since relieving Dominik Hasek in Game 4 of the first-round series against Nashville -- Zetterberg wound up with the puck one-on-one against the Stars' Brad Richards, a center. Richards, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner with Tampa Bay in 2004, does many things well, but defending against one of the most gifted skaters in the league is not one of them. Identifying that he was facing a forward, Zetterberg corkscrewed Richards with a move, delayed, forced Turco to commit and backhanded the puck into the net to give Detroit a 4-2 lead. The Red Wings, now 11-2 in the playoffs, had not blown a third-period lead this spring. After sucking the oxygen out of the arena in Dallas, it wasn't about to start happening then.

When Crosby and Malkin take the ice for Game 3 in Philadelphia Tuesday, they will know the bar has been set awfully high. Let's see them respond. Zetterberg-Datsyuk vs. Crosby-Malkin seems like one of those virtual over-the-rafters-nothing-but-net-Michael Jordan-Larry Bird commercials, only they last 60 minutes and not 60 seconds.


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