When the Red Wings lost to the New Jersey Devils in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals, I remember crying, thinking I would never see them get back to the big stage again. I was nine years old. I was young, but wise beyond my years. At nine, I already understood what it takes to battle all the way to the end, and the agony you must endure when your team comes up short. Losing is tough when you're a kid. However, it never got any easier for me as I grew older. I often wonder if I'll ever grow up. I was everything short of bawling this past June.
It was like a bad breakup. There was a cloud hanging over my summer. Each day it got a little better. Then I'd have a relapse and want to burn every piece of Penguins apparel I could get my hands on (I would never actually do that, don't worry). I didn't want to see hockey. I couldn't even watch the old games on ESPN Classic and such. I was heartbroken. Finally, when talk of the upcoming season started to stir, I found myself curious again. I started to get excited at the possibility of starting fresh. I started to feel stronger as a fan. I got my confidence back. I'm saying things like "Well, the Penguins got theirs, now it's time to take it back" and "I'm a better fan for suffering through that horrible loss." I'm thinking about next spring.
I recently read an article from NHL.com about Pittsburgh's chances of returning to the finals and repeating. The article mentioned the last team to make the Cup finals in three consecutive years was the epic Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. The Oilers were nothing special during their era. In the early 80s, the New York Islanders went to the finals five times in a row - winning the first four and then falling to a younger Oilers team in 1984. The Islanders were preceded by the Montreal Canadiens - four Cups in a row from 1976-1979 and eight in 11 years - stunning. Looking back, those three teams are arguably the best ever in the history of the modern NHL. I refer to the modern NHL as all time after the expansion of 1968.
The dynasty era is supposed to be over right? Nah, not so fast, not if Detroit and Pittsburgh continue to recharge every year. Let's take a look at the current situation. When was the last time two teams met in the finals for three consecutive years? It has never happened during the NHL's 91-year history. Ridiculous. If there is talk about Pittsburgh making it all the way again this season, then I would like to start talking about the Red Wings' chances.
Now, I'd rather not breakdown the Penguin's lineup for this upcoming season. There really is no point to. They haven't changed at all. However, Detroit has, and I believe it's in the right direction - again.
I've said it already, but now I'm putting it down here: If the Red Wings stay healthy, they will be better than they were last season, and they will make the finals for the third time in three seasons. Then, we can all watch Pittsburgh and Detroit become the first two teams to meet in the finals three years in a row.
The Red Wings' core players like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Filpulla, Franzen and Cleary are still in their prime. Chris Osgood has more confidence than ever. I've always said Osgood can be the best goalie in the league if he just had more confidence between the pipes. He has it now. Scrolling down this season's roster, I started to realize something very exciting. The young guys Detroit has this year may be the best, most well-rounded group of young guns the team has had since the 90s. The best news is most of them have prior experience playing in big games. Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm and Ville Leino are all ready to shine.
What I worried about all last season was the defense. I'm actually surprised Detroit was so successful with such terrible defense. The Wings averaged 2.93 goals against per game. That put them way down on the list - number 20. Pittsburgh wasn't much better - 2.84 goals against per game and 17th in the league. In the 2007-2008 season Detroit was the best defensive team in the NHL. The Wings averaged 2.18 goals against. The Penguins averaged 2.58. Detroit's defense was the difference in the finals both years.
This season, Detroit's blue liners will be better - much better. Two reasons why: Derek Meech and Jonathan Ericsson. Here are two players who will see more ice time. Then there's Stuart, Rafalski, Lidtsrom and Kronwall - four guys who need to stay healthy. If they do, the Wings will have the best defense in the league. Lilja and Lebda are still quality substitutes.
Mike Babcock may not run the lines like this, but if he's smart he will.
The Red Wings will be stronger than last year. They will have more depth throughout the season. They won't miss Hossa or Samuelson. Hudler will be forgotten easily. Their departure actually makes the team better. Guys like Abdelkader and Helm should see the ice a lot more - which is only good for the team. Ville Leino will score 20 goals this year - remember I said that.
OK, maybe I'm getting carried away. It may appear I'm rattling off my dream season. However, honestly, I haven't felt this confident about the team since 2001.
I haven't even mentioned the additions. I will devote a post to Tod Bertuzzi, Jason Williams and Patrick Eaves.
The chance we'll see both teams in the finals is better than last season. We'll see Detroit's dynasty continue and Pittsburgh form one of their own. Will either team be able to maintain dominance like teams of the past? Time will tell. However, right now, it's fair to say the NHL is entering a new dynasty era.