There are two smiles in the picture above. One of them is genuine, one of them is plastered on for effect. Take a guess at which is which.
This isn't going to be a long, rambling post full of conspiracy theory and tin foil hats. If Gary Bettman wanted to ensure the Penguins would be Stanley Cup Champions, he would've "fixed" it so the Red Wings didn't sniff the Final. So no, it's not rigged. It's just riddled with bad officiating and overseen by a serpent who makes everything around him worse for being there. Bettman isn't smart enough to orchenstrate a conspiracy to bring the Cup to Pittsburgh.
Regardless...I have a bad feeling. Now granted, I'm an uber-pessimist by nature. I always assume the worst in pretty much everything. Whenever the Red Wings go to overtime, I expect them to lose. They've proven me wrong twice so far this postseason. But that won't stop me from being cynical. Last year I was eeriely confident. So confident I committed an inexcusable gaffe - I ordered a Western Conference Champions t-shirt in the euphoria of beating the Stars in the WCF last year. I grew increasingly paranoid as the Final progressed, worried that karma would catch up and smite the Red Wings, punishing me for celebrating a conference championship. Such thinking is, of course, complete nonsense. But rational thought is not to be expected from hockey fans in the playoffs. And in the end it didn't matter. Wings 3, Penguins 2. Wings four wins, Penguins two. Wings, Cup Champs.
So what did I do immediately after the Red Wings finished Chicago in overtime Wednesday night? I went to NHL.com and ordered a 2009 Western Champs t-shirt, naturally. It worked last year.
Okay, all nonsense aside, these things I know are true.
- If it was The Face of the League™ Sidney Crosby nursing the injury, there's no way this thing would be starting on Saturday, followed up by the next game on Sunday.
- Pavel Datsyuk is not healthy, and if he ever gets on the ice, that's going to be noticeable.
- Chris Osgood is a better goalie than Marc-Andre Fleury. And since he's Chris Osgood, nobody will acknowledge this.
- The "stage fright" that everyone says the Penguins experienced in Games 1 and 2 last year is being vastly overblown. Stage fright lasts for ten minutes, maybe a period. Not a whole game, and certainly not two whole games. The Red Wings just flat out dominated the Penguins in those opening games.
- With that said, the Penguins will not be shut out for 120 minutes of hockey this time around.
- Marian Hossa is going to do his best to offset any hinderance in Pavel Datsyuk's game. He's going to play in this series like his life and the lives of all of his family members are on the line. The one flaw in Hossa's game is that he's not always "there", that he can coast at times. You don't think he's going to be "there" for the Final? This is why he signed with Detroit. And all the Pittsburgh fans spewing venom at him when the series shifts to Pittsburgh is just going to make him play better.
- Pittsburgh fans can justify and rationalize all about who wouldn't be on their team if Hossa had signed with them. Fact is, you don't lose a top 10 forward and get better. Deeper, maybe. Better? No. Just as the Wings are better with him, the Penguins are worse without him.
- The Red Wings aren't going to bottle up Malkin for five games like they did last year.
- Malkin (and Crosby) also isn't going to go crazy like he did for the first three rounds, because the Red Wings defense is in an entirely different league than Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina. The free-flowing, wide-open games in the East are done. It's always said that you have to be willing to get down and dirty in the corners and in front of the net to win the Stanley Cup. The Red Wings (and the Western Conference as a whole) have this down. But that's not to say the Penguins don't. This is where their experience from last year will come into play. They know more about what sacrifices have to be made to win it all. But they're also not going to do any of that "down and dirty" stuff better than the Ducks did.
- While the Penguins haven't faced a defense like Detroit's, the opposite holds true as well: while the Wings have faced some elite players (Nash, Getzlaf & Perry, Toews & Kane), they haven't faced a duo like Crosby and Malkin (this year, anyway).
Worrisome that when it's all said and done, the serpent's smile will be genuine this time.