By Allan Muir, SI.com
Give 'em credit. The Red Wings know how to keep things interesting.
After blowing their first chance to finish off the never-say-die Pittsburgh Penguins in the waning seconds of Game 5, the Wings almost gave away Wednesday's Game 6 in even more dramatic fashion. Marian Hossa's desperation-backhand bid got by Chris Osgood's outstretched glove, but slid harmlessly through the crease as time expired, leaving intact Detroit's 3-2 win and allowing the Wings to celebrate their 2008 Stanley Cup championship.
The thrilling finish -- Pittsburgh pulled within a goal when Hossa deflected a Sergei Gonchar blast with less than 90 seconds on the clock -- stood in counterpoint to what otherwise was a grimly methodical game, in which the Wings executed their system to perfection, wearing down the young Penguins with their seamless checking.
The frustration of Monday's triple-overtime loss behind them, Detroit shook off their demons and played this one with poise and purpose. Unlike the nervous bunch that stumbled out of the gate in Game 5, these were the Wings who dominated the NHL from wire-to-wire. They took the raucous Mellon Arena crowd out of the game early, mucking up the neutral zone, stalling each Penguins attack at the blue line and surrounding Sidney Crosby with three and four defenders every time he touched the puck. And talk about a textbook possession game: The Wings were charged with just two giveaways on the night.
It was fitting that Detroit won this on the strength of their defense because -- their ranking as the league's top offense notwithstanding -- this is what they are at their core. A defensive juggernaut led by Nicklas Lidstrom, who beamed after the game when asked about what made his fourth Cup special. "I'm very proud of being a captain of the Red Wings," he said. "And I'm very proud of being the first European captain."
The rest of the defensemen corps proved their mettle, as well. There was Brian Rafalski, the free-agent signee who scored the game's first goal and soaked up more than 25 minutes. Brad Stuart, the trade-deadline acquisition who provided a physical presence and was a plus-nine on the series. Nicklas Kronwall's smash-mouth play evoked memories of Vladdy Konstantinov, and Andreas Lilja and Brett Lebda helped grind Evgeni Malkin's line down to a few moments, rather than games, of significance.
There was Henrik Zetterberg who finished the playoffs with 27 points, a club record for points in one playoff year, while proving night after night that he was a deserving finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward. He played a key role in shutting down Crosby throughout the series, and again was a stalwart on a momentum draining five-on-three penalty kill just minutes after he set up Rafalski's power-play goal.
It was Zetterberg, a fitting Conn Smythe winner, who sealed the deal with perhaps the most unlikely Cup clincher in memory.
After swiping the puck at center ice, he swooped in and blasted a shot that Marc-Andre Fleury appeared to handle until the screams from the crowd sitting behind the goaltender revealed what was transpiring. The puck squeezed through his pads and trickled slowly toward the line before stopping just short. With the lone Wing attacker tied up and three Pittsburgh defenders back to provide support, it was just a close call ... until Fleury knocked it in himself as he fell back to smother the loose disc.
And finally, there was Ozzie. After starting the playoffs warming the bench, Chris Osgood stepped in to guide the Wings to the promised land. His was a bold, courageous and expectation-defying performance, highlighted by a remarkable stick save on Gary Roberts midway through the second that preserved the two-goal lead during one of Pittsburgh's rare surges.
It's fashionable to understate his importance based on the quantity of shots he faces. It's also foolish. Osgood stood taller than his 5-foot-10 frame, making big saves seem small and easy with his economical, but highly effective style. Though his efforts are appreciated by his mates, his first comment during the postgame broadcast was telling. "I've got a bigger heart than people think," he said.
So, too, did this team. Picked by almost no one prior to the playoffs to deliver on their regular-season promise, the Wings were driven to prove that they could. And they did it their way. It's hard to believe the season's actually over. But there's something reassuring that comes from the realization that, after nine months of battle, the best team won out.
Allan Muir is the senior editor of Beckett Hockey magazine and the NHL's official scorer at Dallas Stars home games.