After six weeks of marathon hockey, the stage is finally set for a Stanley Cup Final between the game's marquee player and the game's marquee franchise. At one end of the ice, it's arguably the NHL's best-run club in the Detroit Red Wings. At the other end, it's a young and fiery Pittsburgh Penguins club led by Sidney Crosby.
And though both teams share the moniker as the NHL's cream of the crop, their paths to glory have been very different.
In Pittsburgh, the Penguins were slowly and painstakingly built up from scratch.
One year after Mario Lemieux's heralded 2001 return and a berth in the Eastern Conference final, the cash-strapped Penguins jettisoned superstar Jaromir Jagr and began a long tailspin that saw the team miss the playoffs for three straight seasons.
As with any series of losing campaigns in sports, the team's on-ice struggles paid off handsomely with a string of high draft picks. From 2001 to 2006, the Penguins loaded up with heralded prospects Ryan Whitney, (fifth overall in 2002) Marc-Andre Fleury (first overall in 2003), Evgeni Malkin (second overall in 2004), Crosby (first overall in 2005) and Jordan Staal (second overall in 2006).
"You had a time in the league when there was a constant stream of very talented players coming in at one time," says NHL on TSN analyst Pierre McGuire, who won a Cup with the Penguins as an assistant coach in 1992.
"That was good fortune for the Penguins - they didn't get stuck with a Patrik Stefan with the first pick like Atlanta from 1999. They were picking early with really good players and didn't misfire."
Pittsburgh's success at the draft table has often drawn comparisons to early picks that the Quebec Nordiques enjoyed in the late 1980's and early 1990's when their first-overall picks included Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan and Eric Lindros. While none of Quebec's three blue-chippers were on the Stanley Cup-winning lineup for the Colorado Avalanche in 1996, each of them was traded for important components that contributed to that championship.
That's the big difference between them and this year's Pittsburgh Penguins, who have all of their home-grown stars making big contributions en route to the final. Staal, who struggled offensively in his sophomore season, picked up his play in the playoffs at both ends of the ice. Whitney shares the team lead in postseason plus-minus and is second among defencemen in that category going into the Final. Malkin finished second in league scoring in the regular season and practically ran the offence in a handful of postseason games, while Fleury is getting Conn Smythe Trophy consideration with a playoff-leading 1.70 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.
"The biggest thing that stabilized Pittsburgh was (general manager) Ray Shero keeping those young guys in the NHL," McGuire said. "Everybody wanted (Sergei) Gonchar gone and Ray kept him to allow Malkin to have an easier transition into the NHL. They signed Petr Sykora, who played with Malkin in Magnitogorsk. They also brought in Gilles Meloche in as a goalie coach to work with Marc-Andre Fleury. Shero never panicked, and built around the assets he had."
And the biggest asset of all is Crosby, a young phenom who raised plenty of eyebrows after being given the captain's 'C' just two seasons ago. No one should be questioning that decision now, as Sid The Kid has grown up quickly with 21 points in 14 playoff games this spring.
"They got Crosby winning the 'ping-pong ball' lottery," said McGuire. "The team that won the second pick was Anaheim. Could you imagine the Ducks if they got the right ball? I don't think Pittsburgh's where they are today if they didn't win the lottery. They would have picked Bobby Ryan or Jack Johnson, and with all due respect, they're not Sidney Crosby."
By contrast, the Red Wings have been the toast of the NHL for well over a decade. With three Stanley Cups in four tries from 1995 to 2002, they (along with the New Jersey Devils) are as close as you can get to a modern-day hockey dynasty.
And Detroit's success story certainly doesn't stop at championships. Years of success near the top of the NHL standings translate into lower draft picks, but the Red Wings have succeeded in helping de-bunk the myth that a team needs high slam-dunk selections to build a winning foundation.
"Detroit didn't have much of a choice," says McGuire. "You go back to when Kenny Holland was just a scout with the team, traveling all over the world and finding players."
With hindsight being 20/20 in draft analysis, fans and pundits always seem to focus on who wasn't taken at a certain position. In Detroit's case, it should be who was taken.
Over the last 10 seasons the Wings have only had four first-round choices, and none of them were higher than 19th overall. Only one of them - hard-hitting defenceman Niklas Kronwall who went 29th overall in 2000 - panned out.
The real strength of the Red Wings' drafts has been the latter rounds, with Pavel Datsyuk (171st overall in 1998), Henrik Zetterberg (210th overall in 1999), Tomas Kopecky (38th overall in 2000), Jiri Hudler (58th overall in 2002), Valtteri Filppula (95th overall in 2002), Derek Meech (229th overall in 2002) and Johan Franzen (97th overall in 2004) in their 2007-08 lineup.
"(European scout) Hakan Andersson deserves a lot of credit for that," explained McGuire.
Going back a bit further, 'carry-overs' Chris Osgood (54th overall in 1991), Tomas Holmstrom (257th overall in 1994), Darren McCarty (46th overall in 1992) and captain Nicklas Lidstrom (53rd overall in 1989) were instrumental in leading the Wings to their last three Stanley Cups.
"You can go down the line and see all the things they were able to do internally," added McGuire. "Ken Holland had the scouting down and Scotty Bowman had the team-building down so they always identified positions of need. They never had to rush players into their system - that's why their later round picks were able to play well once they came into the league. And they didn't have to develop too long in the AHL because they had such a great supporting cast."