The 2009 Stanley Cup match-up is set as a young Pittsburgh Penguins squad fresh off being first-runner up a year ago gets a rematch against the well-oiled machine that is the veteran Detroit Red Wings club. Just another case of history repeating.
It's been 25 years since two teams skated against each other in the finals in back-to-back seasons, and the Penguins are hoping they can follow the lead of the 1984 Edmonton Oilers and take the next step in their development, unseating the Red Wings atop the National Hockey League.
While the comparisons between the Edmonton and Pittsburgh's attempts to ascend into prominence begin with the dynamic duos of Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin and Wayne Gretzky/Mark Messier, the similarities between the four teams in question run much deeper.
In 1983, the New York Islanders entered the Stanley Cup final after having their names engraved on the trophy in each of the previous three campaigns. Under head coach Al Arbour, they were a tenacious group, led by the likes of Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, and Billy Smith. Their opponent, the Edmonton Oilers, brought an unparalleled excitement to the game from Western Canada, becoming the highest-scoring team in league history that season. As is often the case, the paper previews didn't manifest themselves into reality on the ice, and the inexperienced Oilers fell in four straight games, giving the Islanders their fourth consecutive title.
“There was a rivalry that was created between us and the Islanders,” recalled Gretzky. “Losing that first final, walking by their locker room, the one thought we had as players was that it was going to be a dreadful sight watching them celebrate and have a tremendous time. As we found out, it was pretty quiet in there. Really, we kind of walked out healthy and they were pretty beat up, and we realized then and there it takes more than just wanting to win - you were going to have to earn it and it was going to take a lot to win a Stanley Cup and be a champion.”
A quarter of a century later, the Islanders modern-day counterpart, the Red Wings, also managed to prevent the budding Penguins from taking home the Cup in 2008, but as fate would have it, neither the Oilers nor the Penguins wilted under the pain of defeat. Instead, both fought their way along the difficult road that brought them back to a chance for redemption.
“The Islanders presented a big challenge for us,” stated Messier. “They were very well coached, they played a very tight defensive game and they really took a lot of things away from us that we liked to do offensively. Getting swept the previous year, we knew we had to come back the next year and figure out a way to play better as a team defensively - and harder.”
In their second meeting with New York, Edmonton was collectively a year older, a bit wiser, and driven to avenge their previous loss. Gretzky and Messier propelled a solid supporting cast past the Islanders, capturing their first of four titles in five seasons. It was an overwhelming experience.
“For any hockey player growing up as Wayne and I did, in the backyards, on the streets and in the local arenas, that's what you dreamed of your whole life, winning a Stanley Cup. We emulated that many times as a youth,” said Messier. “When you finally get to realize that dream a lot of emotions come out.”
With the connections between the teams of the mid-eighties and the two clubs remaining in this year's Quest for the Cup, it begs the question whether the Penguins are on the verge of eclipsing Motown's perennial powerhouse and taking the next step into the NHL's elite.
“They're on the right path,” said NHL on TSN analyst Pierre McGuire in reference to the Pens. “Since Crosby and Malkin have come into the league, they've been getting better every year and they have an enlightened GM in Ray Shero, who is going to make good player personnel decisions, which we've already seen in his first three years. So their potential for growth is huge.”
Pittsburgh's strength begins with it's depth at centre, something that allows the Eastern Conference champions to have flexibility in terms of how they build around their nucleus, and giving them yet another striking similarity to the Oilers of old.
“The comparison begins down the middle to with Gretzky and Messier, and then Crosby and Malkin," said McGuire. "Obviously they don't have the same physical dimension that Messier had, but Crosby has a lot of the same vision that Gretzky possessed and Gretzky's flare for the dramatic. Malkin is an amazingly skilled player, but he isn't as tough or as hardnosed as Messier.”
The Penguins' megastars will have to battle against Red Wings' captain and defensive stalwart Nicklas Lidstrom, who is expected to be back in the lineup for Game 1. In terms of historical perspective, Lidstrom assumes the role of the Islanders' defenceman Denis Potvin in this Stanley Cup sequel, a saga over two decades in the making. In their own end, Pittsburgh lacks a player with the type of resume Lidstrom brings to the blue line, but the core group of their defenders has returned to the scene of the crime.
“On defence, Pittsburgh doesn't have one defenceman that can skate like Paul Coffey did for the Oilers, but they have a lot of guys who can do good things, whether it's Sergei Gonchar on the powerplay, Kris Letang who keeps improving, or Rob Scuderi who is like Charlie Huddy in that he's safe and reliable and you know what you're going to get from him all the time,” stated McGuire.
“I think the biggest thing is that we're going to find out is about Marc-Andre Fleury. Is he as good as Grant Fuhr in key moments in games?” asked McGuire. “So far in this playoff season he's been very much like Fuhr, so we'll see if he can do it in the Final. You're never really battle tested until you do it in a Final. He was good last year, but he wasn't good enough, so we'll see if he's good enough this year. I think he's a year better and a year more mature.”
If Detroit is going to defend its title and stifle the ever-emerging Pittsburgh franchise, they will need to re-write history. If not, this could be the beginning of a new dynasty in the NHL.
“The making of dynasty requires star caliber players who are locked up to long-term contracts,” explained McGuire. “In the case of Pittsburgh, you have that with Malkin, Crosby, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury. So you have a lot of the key components signed. Nothing is guaranteed because injuries and questionable calls come into play, but if you look at it right now, they're on a path to success for a long time.”