By Michael Farber, SI.com
The hockey gods have smiled on the Stanley Cup, flashing a grin as wide as the talent disparity between the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins and everybody else in the NHL. This 2008 final looks like a real keeper, a meeting not merely of the two best teams in the NHL -- but the two most viscerally appealing.
This could be a heavyweight bout.
In the red corner are the President Trophy-winning Red Wings, who took care of business, albeit a little belatedly, by thumping the Stars, 4-1, in Dallas for Game 6 of the Western Conference final Monday. The Wings are graced with the best linemates in hockey, Henrik Zetterberg, who picked Stars captain Brenden Morrow's pocket to score a shorthanded breakaway goal in the second period and squelch any thought of a Stars comeback, and Pavel Datsyuk, who had a goal in the three-goal first period outburst that deflated the crowd at the American Airlines Center. They have the best defenseman of his generation and one of the top five or so in modern NHL history, the elegant Nicklas Lidstrom (above). They also have, as you probably already noticed, the puck. If you were curious about why Detroit goalie Chris Osgood seems like he is bubble-wrapped, look no further than puck possession: The Red Wings play an elaborately skilled game of keep-away, leading a merry chase that rarely allows more than 22 shots per game on their net.
In the black-and-gold corner are the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were already home and cooled after trashing Philadelphia some 28 hours earlier in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final. They have the two best players in the NHL who are not regular linemates in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and more dependable two-line scoring than the Red Wings, at least as long as Detroit's Johan Franzen is sidelined with a concussion. Like Detroit, the Penguins are hockey's version of eye candy, dangling more than a sixth-grader's participle. Although not as prepossessing on defense, the Penguins can throw a 1-4 trap at almost any time and suck the oxygen out of a game when they need to protect a lead.
So to sum up, after more than a decade of Stanley Cup final matchups that had less buzz than a circular saw, the NHL finds itself blessed with an Original Six team with national appeal and a worthy history (Detroit's 10 Stanley Cups are third to only Toronto's 13 and Montreal's 24) playing a team with a great backstory (bankruptcies, a near relocation) and the most young talent in the NHL, headed by a 20-year-old star with a soupçon of name recognition -- even in non-hockey towns.
For Games 3 through 7, when NBC takes over the telecasts from the NHL's subterranean cable network, Versus, the Peacock plans to change its name to National Broadcasting Crosby.
Presumably, El Sid will be the centerpiece of the final because the exposure of a long series -- and this one has a chance -- can turn Crosby into a crossover star in a star-conscious country, someone capable of bursting through the confines of a 200-by-85 surface into the national sports conversation. Maybe even beyond. His talent is conspicuous, his passion is overt, his poise is astounding. There has not been a hockey player since Wayne Gretzky so singularly prepared for excellence. As one of the keepers of the game, Crosby takes his custodial role with the same seriousness that he takes most things. Like Gretzky in his first final in 1983, Crosby's debut makes this final appointment viewing.
The last final that created a genuine stir -- at least before it began and the Red Wings ran the table -- was Detroit-Philadelphia in 1997, boasting Eric Lindros and the Legion of Doom against self-proclaimed Hockeytown. The subsequent finals either have involved trapping teams (New Jersey in 2000, 2001 and 2003), small-market Canadian teams against American teams without national cachet (Calgary vs. Tampa Bay in 2004, Edmonton vs. Carolina in 2006, Ottawa vs. Anaheim in 2007), apparent mismatches (Detroit vs. Washington in 1998 and Carolina in 2002) or one-man teams (Buffalo's Dominik Hasek vs. Dallas in 1999). There have not been the layers of intrigue or the sheer quantity of skill that Detroit and Pittsburgh now offer.
This might be mere serendipity or a sign of something more significant at work. Three seasons past the lockout, maybe it is time for the NHL to take a bow. The game was re-worked in the 2004-05 hiatus in an effort to end the old hook-and-hold-‘em rodeo and reward skilled players. Although the pace of progress seemed glacial -- the so-called officiating standard can be maddening -- there is an increased flow and indeed beauty to the NHL game. The league seems to have found its happy place.
When the two teams that play the most exemplary hockey get to do it in a Stanley Cup final that starts Saturday, the NHL has got it right.