By Michael Farber
Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg picked up Sidney Crosby early on Sunday, the morning of Game 2, at the Penguins’ hotel in Detroit. The two stopped at a Starbucks, where Zetterberg paid, poured the milk into Crosby’s coffee and stirred.
Then they drove to a nearby church. Crosby settled into a pew, and Zetterberg slid in next to him. Crosby picked up a hymnal; Zetterberg turned the pages.
Crosby recited the Lord’s Prayer. Zetterberg said, “Amen.”
Well, that’s not actually what happened, but given the way the Stanley Cup finals were unfolding, would anyone have been surprised?
With the continued absence of Pavel Datsyuk, nursing an injured foot, Detroit was left with just one sublime two-way center—Zetterberg—who could play head-to-head against either Crosby, Pittsburgh’s captain, or Evgeni Malkin, the NHL’s leading scorer and an MVP finalist. They are Sid and Geno to teammates, Hemlock and Arsenic to opponents. With the last line change that came with his home ice advantage in the first two games, Detroit coach Mike Babcock had to decide which of the two Penguins most deserved the privilege of a full-time escort from Zetterberg and the attention of the No. 1 defense pair of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski.
Crosby won—or in this case, lost.
This was less about Zetterberg checking Crosby than stalking him. The fluid Red Wing, strong on his skates, was so near he could have guessed Crosby’s toothpaste brand. “That’s what he tried to do the last couple of years that I’ve played against him,” Crosby says. “He’s always been close. He’s a good skater. It always presents a challenge.” Of Crosby’s 49 shifts through two games, even-strength and power-play, Zetterberg was on the ice for all or part of 46 of them. They shared nearly 34 minutes of Crosby’s 42 minutes on ice. Crosby took 35 face‑offs; Zetterberg was across the dot in 27 of them. Crosby wallpapered a head-down Zetterberg at center ice in the first period of Game 1 and later delivered a cross‑check to the nape of Zetterberg’s neck. “I think he went head‑hunting right off the hop,” Babcock said, not disapprovingly. “[Crosby’s] ability to respond was good. I think that’s a game within the game. If you’re a hockey purist, and you like superstars who bring it, that’s a nice matchup.”
Zetterberg is a laconic man, even by Swedish standards. He embraces whatever task he is assigned unbothered that his offense—just one assist in two games—might suffer. Along with hounding Crosby, Zetterberg was a second goalie in Games 1 and 2 last weekend, covering a puck that had landed on the prostrate Osgood’s back in the opener and hurling himself into a dog pile in the crease to cover another puck and deny Crosby on the following night. Like Crosby, Zetterberg said he enjoys the challenge of the matchup. Unlike the loquacious Crosby, he does it with eyes wide-open and lips zipped.
The most meticulous planning is no match for puck luck, as was illustrated in a pair of quirky 3–1 Red Wings wins. From odd bounces off the sprightly Joe Louis Arena boards that resulted in a pair of Red Wings goals in Game 1 to the three goalposts the Penguins hit in Game 2 to rookie winger Justin Abdelkader getting his first two NHL goals, Detroit seemed capable of capitalizing on almost every break. The Penguins, on the other hand, returned home fortunate to have Malkin in the lineup. He picked a fight with Zetterberg 19 seconds from the final whistle of that second game and earned a two-minute instigator penalty, a five-minute fighting major and a game misconduct, which normally carries an automatic suspension. Not surprisingly the NHL rescinded the suspension. Maneuvering in the rule’s gray area, NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell determined that Malkin was neither trying to “send a message” nor seeking revenge for a previous incident and so wouldn’t be banned. (Not to mention, the decision preserved a star attraction, as well as Pittsburgh’s hope of clambering back into the series.) Any Penguins resurrection was going to depend upon Crosby and also upon Malkin, who, largely unencumbered by the ministrations of Zetterberg and Lidstrom, was a persistent threat throughout the first two games, though he had only a goal and an assist. Malkin also LeBroned the media, making himself unavailable for comment after the Zetterberg skirmish.
On his desk in Pittsburgh, Penguins general manager Ray Shero has a color-coded chart of all the shots that have gotten past Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood in the playoffs. This is almost high-tech for a game that has an arm’s‑length relationship with metrics—the convergence of a slippery playing surface, skate blades 1⁄10 of an inch wide and a hunk of bouncing vulcanized rubber make hockey a game of oops—but even the Osgood breakdown is incomplete because it does not account for screened shots. (“In baseball,” Shero says, “it’s not like someone dashes in front of home plate when the pitcher throws the ball.”) In any event Shero can color Osgood, with his .930 postseason save percentage and 1.95 goals-against average, nearly invincible.
A more telling measurement is one that describes Crosby’s scoring tendencies. He had a playoff-leading 14 goals in 17 games entering the finals. The combined distances of 13 of them (discarding an empty-netter) total just 156 feet, or roughly from the goal line to the far face‑off circles. Crosby has scored only four goals from beyond 10 feet, a vivid contrast from last year, when his five goals (again, minus an empty-netter) in 20 games were all scored from beyond 10 feet. Crosby has willed himself to be a playoff goal scorer. “Just trying to go to the net,” says Crosby, who created several chances while buzzing the crease in the first two games. “That’s where a lot of pucks are this time of year. They’re always there, of course, but it seems now that there are even more.” Color-code this: The Kid doesn’t have to be told to go play in traffic. “I don’t think [the Penguins] try to score as many pretty goals as they did last year,” Osgood said on the eve of the finals. “They’re happier just to score the ugly, bang-it-in-the-net goals.”
“They” most often means Pittsburgh’s big two. While the Red Wings continue to draw offense from many sources, winning their two home games without a goal from Datsyuk, Zetterberg or Marian Hossa (their top three scorers), Pittsburgh rarely thrives without Crosby or Malkin making a heavy impact. The key for Pittsburgh is to get the 21-year-old Crosby and the 22-year-old Malkin going at the same time. For the past three years they have performed as if in an old vaudeville routine: After one finished some fancy hoofing, he would stick out his hand and cry, “You take it.” In 2007–08 Malkin dominated when Crosby missed 29 regular-season games with a sprained ankle. But with Crosby back and producing, Malkin vanished in last year’s finals against Detroit, going scoreless through the first four games. “There were plenty of times when I would say, ‘Imagine if we ever got these guys going at the same time,’ ” Shero said just before the start of the finals. “Well, in these playoffs, they have been Mutt and Jeff, 1A and 1B. . . . It’s pretty simple after last year: [Malkin] sees Datsyuk with the Stanley Cup in Moscow and thinks, Why not me? Perhaps he realizes the importance of the [Cup] now.”
Indeed, through Sunday, Malkin had 30 playoff points, two more than Crosby. They had scored 40% of Pittsburgh’s goals and had points in the same game 12 times. Consider Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier of the 1984 Cup-winning Oilers. The then 23-year-olds combined for 61 points in 19 playoff games; Crosby and Malkin had 58 through Game 19. Add in that the Penguins had 67 goals overall, while those Oilers scored 94, and the aura of indispensability is complete.
“They’re different animals,” says Bill Guerin, who plays on Crosby’s right wing. “Their approach to the game is different; if it were the same, I think it would be a train wreck. Geno is just kind of out‑there, on his own program some days. Sid is a straight-line guy.”
Even straight lines may have to detour when faced with a roadblock as talented and poised as Detroit. Crosby had worked tirelessly to improve his face‑offs by 4.4%—only to fumble against Zetterberg in Game 1, losing 11 of 16, including the draw late in the second period that led to the winning goal. Crosby had also kept his previously visible emotions in check this postseason until he was moved to slash Detroit forward Kirk Maltby on the foot after the final siren of that game, when the Red Wings were queuing up to congratulate Osgood. “Under five . . . like a three,” Maltby said, when asked to rate the severity of the slash on a scale of 10. “It didn’t hurt.” Crosby said his love tap was a calculated response to what he described as Maltby’s “lip service.”
As the series shifted to Pittsburgh, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma had the chance, with the last line change, to liberate Crosby from Zetterberg State Penitentiary. The bad news for Pittsburgh is that teams that have won the first two games at home have won the finals 31 out of 32 times. (Last season’s Red Wings are among those winners, having jumped out against the Penguins then, too.) If Pittsburgh fails to rally, the heat will be on the trinity that appears on a poster outside the new arena being built across from Mellon Arena: Crosby, Malkin and Marc‑André Fleury, the goalie who played spottily in the first two games.
But this will hardly be Crosby’s last stand, nor will the Gretzky comparisons end. Gretzky won the Cup in his fifth NHL season; Crosby is in his fourth. “That’s how I want to be measured,” Crosby said. “The Stanley Cup. That’s how you measure everyone.”
And that’s how the Red Wings, 11-time Cup champions, are best measured. Closing out the Penguins would give them their fifth title in 12 years, a run worthy of mention alongside dynasties. Like Zetterberg knows, it’s all about the company you keep.