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Same Time Next Year?

With hockey's two best teams set up to stay that way, a Penguins--Red Wings finals, rich with thickening subplots, could become a familiar event

Forty-five seconds into Game 5, Pavel Datsyuk made his grand albeit belated entry into the Stanley Cup finals to a stirring ovation from the nervous crowd at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. Datsyuk, the Red Wings' marvelous two-way forward, had missed seven straight games because of a bad foot, a lingering injury that deeply vexed the Wings' faithful. After being dusted in the previous match by Pittsburgh—in the aftermath of that game, the suddenly spent Red Wings seemed to be trailing the finals, two games to two—America's Hockey Team appreciated that it might not survive unless Datsyuk could effectively rejoin Henrik Zetterberg and make for a fair fight against the Penguins' pair of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. There hadn't been this much civic consternation over a foot since Cinderella's.

Some 2½ hours later Datsyuk and his foot had given the defending Stanley Cup champions a leg up and Pittsburgh a boot in the rump in the form of a 5--0 schooling in which the Penguins seemed petulant and, at times, puerile. The thumping was preposterously out of character in a series that for four games seemed to have been dancing on the edge of a dime; the teams had been either tied or separated by a single goal for 178:48 of the first 240 minutes.

"He wasn't a 100 percent Pavel Datsyuk," said Detroit defenseman Brian Rafalski, "but I'll take 85 percent of Pavel Datsyuk [over] 100 percent of most other guys."

Datsyuk assisted on Dan Cleary's opening goal, helped create the fourth goal on the Wings' revitalized power play and also knocked Malkin on his bottom with a seismic check while playing 17:38 (mostly on a line with Zetterberg) in the blowout. The game turned nasty in the second period when Crosby slashed Zetterberg on the shin moments before Pittsburgh forward Maxime Talbot tried to perform some Sher-Wood surgery on Datsyuk's foot. Talbot said he was just playing the puck, which apparently now is made of bone, tendons and cartilage instead of rubber. That slash added another subplot to a series that has included Zetterberg's relentless dogging of Crosby as well as the presence of winger Marian Hossa; the Benedict Arnold of Pittsburgh played in the 2008 finals with the Penguins but then elected to sign a free-agent contract with the Red Wings/Red Coats because he thought Detroit had a better chance to win in '09.

"As a rivalry it's not like us and [intradivision foe] Philly," Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero said of the finals rematch with Detroit, "but it's getting there. Hossa's going to Detroit ... that spiced things up. You see guys like [Johan] Franzen and [Tomas] Holmstrom going at it with [Penguins defenseman Brooks] Orpik, and you can see the history. There's a carryover on the ice from last year's finals. They're all laying it out pretty good."

But for all the anger stockpiled during a long series—punches between Malkin and Zetterberg near the end of Game 2, tit-for-tat slashes between Kirk Maltby and Crosby (Maltby, nailed on the foot a few seconds after the end of Game 1, gave Crosby, ahem, "a sweet love tap" on the calf in the third period of Game 4), and lusty booing in Mellon Arena each time Hossa touched the puck—bile and frustration never poisoned a respect that seemed at times to veer toward reverence. "The Red Wings are the ultimate professionals," said Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi. "They play the game well. They don't get too mixed up in some of the crap after the whistle. Even if you try to engage them in that kind of stuff, they usually skate away. They know they're good, and they back it up most nights."

Added Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, "It's tough not to be envious of the quality people they have [in the organization] and [of] the quality players in the rink."

The Red Wings and the Penguins are the best of enemies. And they might stay that way for a long time.

Like an aging actress's 39th birthday or a Brett Favre comeback, a Detroit-Pittsburgh meeting is threatening to become an annual event. This must-see déj√† vu Stanley Cup finals, the first rematch since the surging Oilers intersected with the latter days of the Islanders' dynasty in 1983 and '84, does not have the feel of a one-off. (Or in this case, a two-off.) While the Red Wings and the Penguins will hardly have an easy time continually reprising their appearances in the finals—Chicago is an evolving Western Conference challenger; Washington and Philadelphia could be thorns in the East—these finalists will not simply wax and wane. A parallel could be the Yankees and the Dodgers, who between 1947 and 1956 played each other in the World Series six times.

The Wings are "the standard," as Shero calls them—or to further the previous analogy, the Yankees—because of their sustainability. Detroit drafts, develops and, in recent years, signs long-term deals with more creativity than any other team. Zetterberg, the 28-year-old center who hounded Crosby like a repo man through four of the first five games, is under contract through 2020--21, a year so distant the only certainties seem to be death, taxes and Law & Order reruns. General manager Ken Holland has manipulated the system by enticing players to commit to less than free-agent market value and by spreading out their compensation (the cap charge is determined by average annual pay) to the extent that the final two seasons of Zetterberg's 12-year, $73 million deal are less salaries than swell parting gifts (a combined $2 million over those years). Holland signed Franzen, who led the Red Wings with 12 playoff goals through Game 5, to an 11-year contract during the season that similarly peters out near the end, at which time it can be bought out for a pittance. If Detroit can re-sign the 30-year-old Hossa, who is eligible for free agency on July 1, it will also be to a contract that takes him into his hockey dotage or beyond.

In addition to keeping its most productive players, Detroit is unmatched at cultivating replacements from within the organization. The pipeline from its AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids gushes NHL-ready talent, including, in these playoffs, rookies Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm, Ville Leino and Justin Abdelkader. (Forwards Abdelkader and Helm had no regular-season goals in limited time but have combined for three in the finals and six in the playoffs.) At least one other AHL player, goalie Jimmy Howard, figures to finish his apprenticeship and join the Red Wings as a backup to Chris Osgood next season. Like the House of Windsor, the royal family of Holland has this business of succession all figured out.

"The key is their resolve and belief in what they're doing," Shero says. "They know they're not going to win a Cup every year. They've lost in the first round [2003 and '06] and the second round ['04]. But Kenny didn't just blow it up. He stayed with the plan, with what he knew to be the right thing."

Just as the Penguins now mimic the Wings' high-octane, puck-possession hockey—"The teams play the same way because that's the only way you get here," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said before Game 5—they also have locked up their nucleus (box, page 48). Crosby is signed through 2013. Last summer Malkin agreed to a five-year extension and Orpik a six-year deal, and goalie Marc-André Fleury re-upped for seven. Ten years removed from bankruptcy, Pittsburgh now spends to the salary cap and will in the future. The revenue streams generated by the new rink rising across the street from Mellon Arena—the Penguins will move to the new place for the 2010--11 season—should allow the team to splash around in some black ink. "That'll be a hot ticket, and they'll have more revenue," Holland says. "[The Penguins are] a big thing in town. Athletes are entertainers. They want to play where hockey matters. With Mario Lemieux as an owner, you've got to believe that this will be a destination franchise for players."

Pittsburgh's ability to persuade players to agree to smaller numbers on their contracts will determine how long the Penguins remain a perennial power in the face of the salary cap. "It's worked here because players like Datsyuk, Franzen, Zetterberg and Hossa have done it and made it part of the culture," says Red Wings defenseman Brett Lebda. "Guys are willing to take less money because they can win a Stanley Cup." Pittsburgh has Crosby, 21, and Malkin, 22, as the carney barkers who can lure people into the tent. Their mere presence, guaranteed for several more years, should attract players whose interest in winning exceeds their concerns about the last dollar. "If you're looking for the puck," Holland said, "there might not be any better centermen than that."

"I talk a lot to Kris," Boucher says of Kris Letang, the Penguins' coveted right-shot defenseman, who can be a restricted free agent after the 2009--10 season. "He talks about his contract, worries about it like many young guys. I always tell him, why would you want to go run a power play anywhere else when you can play with these guys? After getting to the finals two years in a row, I'm sure more and more people are going to see this around the game. This will be the place for people who want to win."

With the Red Wings poised to complete their Stanley Cup defense on Tuesday in Game 6 at Mellon Arena—where they won it last year—Pittsburgh still might not have finished its own apprenticeship. While Detroit looked a little old in its 4--2 loss in Game 4, the Penguins' unraveling in Game 5 (48 minutes in penalties, Talbot's slash) made them look a little young. Unless they could win at home and finally take a game in Detroit, they would truly look like the perennial runner-up Dodgers.

And if you are that close to the Red Wings, the wait for next year can seem eternal.

All Locked Up

Many of Pittsburgh's and Detroit's most crucial players should be around for a while


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The anger that built up in the series didn't poison respect. "They play the game well," said Pittsburgh's Scuderi.


Photograph by LOU CAPOZZOLA

BANG-UP PERFORMANCE Battles between Detroit defender Niklas Kronwall (in white) and Malkin help intensify their teams' rivalry.




Photograph by LOU CAPOZZOLA

EYE CANDY The puck may have looked tempting to Kunitz (14) in Game 5, but Rafalski and Osgood kept him from knocking it in.