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KELLEY: Breaking down the Finals

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 
They drop the puck Tuesday night at Joe Louis Arena, with hockey's most coveted prize at stake. FOXSports.com's Jim Kelley breaks down the Stanley Cup finals, leaving no stick unturned:

Forwards

The Red Wings have them. First there's the Hall of Fame Collection — Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Luc Robitaille. Those guys are evenly spread around with the everyday workerbees like Tomas Holmstrom, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty.
STANLEY CUP FINALS
Game Date, Site Time
1 Tuesday, at Detroit 8 p.m. ET
2 Thursday, at Detroit 8 p.m. ET
3 Saturday, at Carolina 8 p.m. ET
4 June 10, at Carolina 8 p.m. ET
*5 June 13, at Detroit 8 p.m. ET
*6 June 15 at Carolina 8 p.m. ET
*7 June 17, at Detroit 8 p.m. ET
Then there are the usual requisite of grinders, role players and fill-ins, all of whom are either average or above-average on this team. Aside from the individual talent, these guys play well as a group and as interchangeable parts. Coach Scott Bowman makes it a practice to have all players play in different lines during the regular season. It's a tactic that gets criticism from fans and sometimes players, but in the end, each player knows how every teammate plays so when they are plugged into a different line, they know what to do, how to do it and how their linemates, new or old, like it done. It's a system that works. The 'Canes play a more structured system. They have a No.1 line of veteran Ron Francis, the very talented Sami Kapanen and rising star winger Jeff O'Neill and they execute in all areas of the ice. There's a youngish No. 2 line of center Rod Brind'Amour, a veteran, flanked by Bates Battaglia and rookie Eric Cole. This trio carried the club offensively through the first two rounds, but was slowed to the point of being ineffective against Toronto in the Eastern Conference final. Fortunately for the 'Canes, the Francis line continued to score and the team got effective third-line play from veteran Martin Gelinas and heretofore unheralded newcomers Jaroslav Svoboda and Josef Vasicek. Those three make up a grinding line, but Gelinas has a scorer's touch and has scored big goals throughout his career. The kids are talented and also can find the net, but they seldom stray from their first obligation — to exercise defensive caution. In terms of style, both teams can mix and match. The Wings forwards — particularly on the first two lines — can skate you into the ground and execute fine passes at a high level of speed. They can also check, grind and play the trap or Detroit's famed left-wing lock defensive system. They can go pretty much anyway you want to play it — the sign of a truly great team. The 'Canes are a bit more structured. Carolina tends to play a cautious, defensive style. Trapping is the norm, but they do skate very well and they are smart. They take advantage of one-on-one play and are good at forcing turnovers and countering on the transition. They are also very physical, quite content to take the body at every opportunity, wearing an opponent down much the way a solid club boxer would take down a better-conditioned foe. Attack the body relentlessly and the head will eventually fall. Still, the Red Wings have the better of it here in overall depth and talent. Advantage: Detroit

Defense

Again, Detroit has all the big names. Veterans Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom are vying for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman (to be named later this month in Toronto). Consider those two to be the headliners, but the backup band is pretty tight with veterans Fredrik Olausson and Steve Duchesne. Jiri Fischer is the rising star as far as young players on this team, making an impact in the series with Colorado. Also in reserve in case of injuries are long-time veterans Uwe Krupp and Jiri Slegr. The unit is slower than some, but it makes up for a lack of mobility with smart play in its own zone and numerous players who can make that first-strike pass to get out of trouble in the back end of the ice. Prior to the start of these playoffs, the majority of hockey fans outside of North Carolina probably couldn't name a 'Canes defenseman other than veteran Glen Wesley. That's changed now. A "no-name" group has emerged into a core that includes Wesley, former Florida Panther Bret Hedican, former Red Wing Aaron Ward and the improving Sean Hill. They are a unit that is better than the sum of its parts, playing a strong stay-at-home game that blends physicality with some speed and puck-moving ability and a huge dose of hard work. The unit isn't adding much to Carolina's offensive attack (combining for only five postseason goals), but it does a great job of limiting chances, keeping opposing forwards from crashing the net and clearing pucks quickly so there are very few second and third scoring chances. Because of Chelios, Lidstrom and all the many years of playoff experience there will be a media tendency to favor the Red Wings here, but when you look at the results in these playoffs the call has to be neutral. Advantage: Even

Goalies

What's to wonder? The Red Wings put forth Dominik Hasek, six times a Vezina Trophy winner as the league's best goalie and twice the Hart Trophy winner as the league's Most Valuable Player. Hasek has played to form in these playoffs, outplaying Patrick Roy in the Western Conference final. Sure, his team was better and especially deeper than the Avs, but Hasek was also better than Roy — a big part of the difference. Back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 and five shutouts this postseason show Hasek is still on top. This import from Buffalo is doing the job. The 'Canes answer with Arturs Irbe. Irbe too, is a veteran and has had some memorable playoff moments, including ousting the heavily favored and No.1-seeded Red Wings in 1994 when he was in the nets for the eighth-seeded San Jose Sharks. For the record, Irbe's got the best save percentage (.947) and the best goals-against average (1.41) in the playoffs this spring. Yet Irbe has lost it from time to time, including during the first round, when he was pulled and benched for a pair of games with New Jersey and didn't regain the starting job until midway through the Montreal series. He can run hot, but he's also been known to come up cold when it matters most. He is quick — quicker than Hasek — but far less consistent and his lack of size (5-8 is a stretch) can work against him, especially with teams that have the ability to place the puck on the corners and especially up high. Advantage: Detroit

Coaching

Look, Carolina's Paul Maurice is a pretty good coach who's managed to structure a team and a system that, when it plays within itself and gets good-to-great goaltending, can be effective. He teaches and plays a system based on discipline, tight checking and cashing in on the other team's mistakes. Yes, it's a trap, but it's an aggressive trap that isn't always boring to watch. Detroit's Bowman is a winner dating back four generations. He's won eight Cups as a coach and is considered the best bench boss ever in the NHL and is often voted one of the top five all-time coaches in any sport. Guys like Maurice consider themselves fortunate just to attend coaching seminars given by guys like Bowman. That's not to say that Maurice won't do a good job of having his team prepared and performing at a high level; it's just that the other guy has a staff of excellent assistants to do that while he concentrates on getting the matchups, line combinations and other almost imperceptible edges. Bowman is the best behind-the-bench coach in the game ever, and when all else is even, that's what usually separates the winners from the losers. Advantage: Detroit

Special Teams

Both teams have them (OK, we played it for a cheap laugh), but they are surprisingly close. The Detroit power play, effectively hobbled by Colorado penalty killers, is only the third-best in the playoffs, converting 21.6 percent of the time. It's stronger at home, 26.8, but noticeably less effective on the road, 15.2. Carolina's power play is woefully weak (17.7) overall and, oddly enough, better on the road (second at 25.8) than at home (11th at 12.5). Detroit lost several games in the playoffs because of poor penalty killing and the stats reflect that. The Wings are eighth overall with a mediocre 85.0. They are sixth at home at a very respectable 89.7, but 11th on the road at 80.5. The 'Canes are pretty much the same with a 10th place overall (83.1); 11th at home (84.8) yet ninth on the road (81.6). If there's an edge here, it should be noted that the Wings have better offense from the blue line, which makes a difference on the power play. The Wings also lead all playoff teams with six shorthanded goals, the next two best teams have two and the 'Canes have none. Advantage: Detroit

Tough Guys

Both teams have some, but unlike Maple Leafs-Islanders or some of the other goon-it-up series of the early rounds, they won't be a factor. The tough guys here are the ones who get their noses dirty on the third and fourth lines taking the body and playing the man. In that regard, the Wings are a tad deeper. They can play an honest fourth line, the 'Canes pretty much stick with three. Don't look for any fighting in this series because there won't be any. Advantage: Detroit

Unsung Hero

Hard to imagine there isn't a hero on the Red Wings roster that hasn't been "sung" this post season, but we like Tomas Holmstrom. He doesn't get the praise the big-name guys get and he's more noted for his checking, hitting ability and his grit than his scoring. But he's played all 18 playoff games and has seven goals, which is three more than perennial All-Star Luc Robitaille. He also has a pair of assists, is a plus-9 in a checking role, is tied for second on the team in power-play goals with three — one behind Steve Yzerman — and has the best shooting percentage (26.9) of any player on the team. He also drives opposition goalies crazy. In Carolina, the relative unknown Vasicek has also played all 18 games. He has just four points (two goals, two assists), but he hits, he hustles, he's a team-high plus-6 and keeps himself out of the penalty box. A close runner-up would be defenseman Nicklas Wallin, who seems to have a penchant for big goals at the right time, including two overtime winners.

Two Things the Stats Won't Tell You

Be aware that there's a grudge match here on and off the ice. 'Canes owner Karmanos has his roots in Detroit where he went to college (Wayne State) and founded and maintains his business empire — Compuware. His general manager, Jim Rutherford, made his NHL mark as a goaltender in Detroit and Maurice, cut his coaching teeth there. Karmanos and company have been long-time rivals with Wings owner Ilitch (famous for Little Caesar's Pizza as well as owning the Red Wings and Detroit Tigers), dating back to when they competed against each other in the Detroit minor hockey programs. It erupted into open warfare when Karmanos tried to lure Wings center Sergei Fedorov to Carolina with a free-agent signing offer in 1998 that forced Ilitch to match the $38-million offer sheet. A lot of owners have never forgiven Karmanos for that, but Ilitch was particularly upset because the deal was structured at almost no risk to Carolina, but forced the Wings to pay $28 of the $38 million up front. Ilitch did that, but he hasn't forgotten and the two have been bitter rivals ever since. On the ice, Shanahan was once a Whaler and wasn't happy about it. He was eventually traded for Keith Primeau, Paul Coffey and a No.1 pick . The Whalers subsequently traded Primeau to Philadelphia for Brind'Amour, a key component in the team's rise to success this season. Meanwhile, Ward was once a Red Wing who fell out of favor and was dealt for little more than future considerations (a second-round draft pick). He'll no doubt want to prove to the Wings that was not a good decision. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Red Wings, Hurricanes, Islanders, Flyers, Avalanche, Blues, Panthers, Jets, Dominik Hasek, Jiri Fischer, Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Darren McCarty, Kirk Maltby, Tomas Holmstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Luc Robitaille, Steve Yzerman, Glen Wesley, Rod Brind'Amour, Sami Kapanen, Aaron Ward, Josef Vasicek, Martin Gelinas, Brett Hull, Keith Primeau, Sean Hill, Bret Hedican

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