— What, change now? Surely you jest. Back at the end of September, I picked Detroit to repeat as this season's Stanley Cup winner, and I'm not going to jump off the Winged Wheel now.
OK, the Wheel's a little wobbly. I get that. Chris Osgood's goaltending isn't anything to be feared, unless you happen to be one of the 12 forwards and half-dozen defensemen who dress in red-and-white and play in front of him every night, or the goal judge who keeps watch on his net, frantically icing down his wrist in order not to develop carpal tunnel from constantly hitting the plunger to trigger the red light.
But so what? I'm on the Wheel of Fortune, and I'm not coming off. No, sirree. Hunh-uh. Detroit, all the way.
Besides, the Wings were my preseason choice to win the Cup last season. And they did. With Osgood in net. He's not the best goalie. Osgood might even be the worst goaltender in this year's playoffs. But he's Osgoodenuf in my book, thanks in large part to that elite class of forwards and defensemen that he, uh, you know, backs up on a nightly basis.
Sure, San Jose could win it, and that's bound to happen some day. Is it not?
For the better part of five seasons, the Sharks have been the sexy pick atop most every pundit's list, and they've carried the Presidents’ Trophy (best regular-season record) into this year's playoffs to make them even more tantalizing. How many playoff previews have been written that include the key words "Sharks," "playoffs" and "destiny" in the first paragraph?
But I'm not buying what Patrick Marleau, Devon Setoguchi and Joe Thornton are putting down. Impressive numbers, yes. Some are dazzling. It's just that there's always that reason to doubt the Sharks. Such as ... oh, yes, their perennial and confounding inability to make it out of the second round.
It was Dallas last season that jumped the Shark in Round 2. Detroit the year before that. And Edmonton the season before that. Always to a sixth game, but never to a seventh, and always straight to the first tee with clubs in one hand and broken dreams in the other. By the way, not one of their conquerors went on to win the Cup.
The Sharks made their one trip to the Western Conference finals in 2004 (the pre-Thornton era) and they lasted ... yes, six games, able to score only 12 times against the Flames. Now they've got the Ducks in the first round. Nothing like a steady diet of defensemen Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, with a side order of Ryan Whitney, to place the Sharks in jeopardy of a Round 1 KO.
Meanwhile, the Red Wings drew the Columbus Blue Jackets for their first tuneup. The poor Jackets. It took them eight seasons to shake off what must have felt like eight decades of postseason DNQs, and their prize is Detroit, a club with nine straight seasons of 100 points or more, and four Stanley Cups in the past 11 seasons.
Until this season, Columbus never won more than 35 games or collected more than 80 points. Welcome to the postseason, Columbus. Weren't the Blues booked for this beating? Cruel. Not DNQ kind of cruel, but cruel nonetheless.
The Wings are well beyond the point where we can look at their roster and say, look, here's what's interesting.
But, look, here's what's interesting:
For all the talk of how dynamic and powerfully offensive the Caps were in the regular season — and they were — the Red Wings put more pucks in the net. That's right, the Red Wings, one of the 29 teams without Alexander Ovechkin, scored 295 times in 2008-'09. The Caps, the one team with Ovechkin (and his league-leading 56 goals), finished third overall with 272 goals, just a peg below the Bruins (274).
Pavel Datsyuk led the Wings with 97 points, tying the career high he set last season. Henrik Zetterberg, the 2009 Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP, connected for 31 goals and 73 points, about a 20 percent dip from his 93 points last season. It was a different Detroit offense this season, though, mostly because Marian Hossa signed up as a free agent and potted 40 goals (only for the third time in his career) and 71 points (some of those borrowed from Zetterberg's cache).
Nicklas Lidstrom, the icon on the Red Wings blueline, probably will not win the Norris Trophy again this season. He has been recognized as the game's No. 1 defenseman six of the past seven seasons, but this season the hardware probably will go to Mike Green (Washington) or Zdeno Chara (Boston).
That's not to say Lidstrom (16 goals, 59 points) isn't worthy of the Norris. It's just that voters have grown somewhat exhausted of inking in his name, and Green's offensive pop probably will draw the most votes. Just as Hossa picked up some of Zetterberg's points up front, the downsized-and-slick Brian Rafalski (10 goals, 59 points) again eased some of Lidstrom's offensive burdens, and borrowed some of his points.
Front to back among the skaters, there isn't an obvious vulnerability in Detroit's game. The net, though, is an obvious and troublesome question.
As the regular season drew to a close, with the Wings set to defend the Cup, the betting around Detroit was that coach Mike Babcock again would put his trust in Osgood. Such faith last spring turned into a 14-4 record and a league-low 1.55 goals-against mark.
However, Osgood last year also led the league with a 2.09 GAA during the regular season. To see him shave about a half-goal off that during the playoffs, when play is tighter, wasn't a real surprise. This season, Osgood's GAA ballooned by a full goal, to 3.09, and his save percentage was a beer-league-like .887.
Osgood has twice backed the Wings to Cups (in 1998 and ’08) and won another as backup to Mike Vernon (1997), and he is capable of getting on a postseason roll and staying on it. The good news is, down the stretch, he looked much sharper, going 1-0-1 in his final two games with a 1.92 GAA and .931 save percentage. All of which pointed to making it far easier for Babcock to point to Osgood as the starter of the series with the Blue Jackets.
And if not Osgood? Journeyman Ty Conklin is the alternate, and he turned in a solid season. He went 25-11-2, with a 2.51 GAA and a .909 save percentage.
The Wings are all about merit and seniority, though, and that's what pointed toward Osgood. Not to mention that Conklin, age 33, has six minutes of postseason experience. Putting him in there is not really the Red Wing way of doing business. And it's probably not good business at all.
Meanwhile, the bet here is that the Bruins or Caps will make it out of the Eastern Conference to face the Wings in the Cup finals.
The Bruins can't match the Wings for experience up front or in back, and they can't match their scoring skill or defensive efficiency. They do have this year's best goalie in Tim Thomas, which can carry them a very long way.
The Caps, despite scoring in lockstep with the Bruins, did not do nearly as good a job keeping their own net sealed. The Bruins were the stingiest at that, allowing only 196 goals (see: Thomas), while the Caps let in 245. In that sense, the Caps were much like the Wings, successful despite spotty, if not infuriating, goaltending. The Caps will try to get the job done with Jose Theodore their No. 1 stopper, but he is a career 19-26 in the postseason for a very good reason: He's just not very good.
It's all lining up as an Original Six final, Red Wings vs. the Bruins, a championship matchup that has occurred only twice in league history.
The Bruins swept the Wings in the 1941 finals, with Bobby Bauer potting the Cup winner. The Red Wings swept the '43 finals. Red Wings goalie Johnny Mowers blanked Boston in the last two games.
The Red Wings beat 'em again, I say, but somehow I doubt Osgood throws back-to-back shutouts to clinch it.