"They knew how to win, how to play a solid defensive system that was hard to penetrate and we knew in order for us to win we had to shore up our defensive game and play tight as a team. They took things we like to do away from us.
We used them as our guide to winning hockey. We had to be tougher mentally, in the trenches, in shot blocking, in all the areas."
>>Mark Messier, on how the 1984 Stanley Cup champion Oilers adapted
after being swept by the Islanders in the 1983 finals
There is naturally a lot of talk about this year's Stanley Cup finals rematch, the first since 1984, emulating its predecessor as a possible "passing of the torch." In 1984 the Islanders famously -- and exhaustedly -- fell to the young Oilers in five games after sweeping the hotshots the year before. The Islanders' core had spent the better part of a decade logging playoff and Canada Cup (two of them) miles before all those cumulative wars in the trenches caught up with them. In a few years Potvin, Bossy, Nystrom, Arbour, and Smith were retired, the rest distributed around the league.
The comparison makes for a nice storyline, one that -- for me, at least -- makes this otherwise "same old teams" finals rematch more intriguing. But I'm not betting on the Penguins to take the torch. (I hope they do, yes sir, and I'll be rooting for the Pens and their former Isles. But my head says Detroit is still the superior team.) People forget there were other finals "rematches" in the '80s, except a year or two apart: Oilers-Flyers ('85 and '87), Flames-Canadiens ('86 and '89), and Oilers-Bruins ('88 and '90). This year's rematch reminds me more of 1987 or 1989.
These Red Wings are not about to become the late-'80s Islanders with key stars fading. Other than Nicklas Lidstrom, who is 39 (and admittedly the biggest key of all), the Wings are not exactly a group of aging veterans at the end of their run -- and Lidstrom himself is not exactly running on fumes. Other older guys like Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby (turtle) are parts of the puzzle, but ultimately quite replaceable (probably from within, given the way the Wings farm system constantly, maddeningly, churns out shiny new parts). Chris Osgood is somehow playoff money, but the Wings do not depend on him to bail them out through 16 wins.
The Penguins, meanwhile, do not remind me of the '80s Oilers -- not yet. They do have an apparently excellent coach and that two-headed superstar monster that has some of us thinking of Gretzky and Messier (albeit without the Messier snarl, guts and propensity for occasional dirty play). Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin entering their prime should keep the Pens in the conversation for the next several years, but without a further cast of Hall of Famers like the '80s Oilers (or the '90s Red Wings), I don't see a semi-dynasty in the making. Who knows? In this salary cap era, this year may actually be the Penguins' best shot at a Cup.
But that's era forecasting. The question is this year, this team: Did the returning Penguins learn enough from last year to take the Red Wings down? Is the change in Penguins personnel -- which on the surface looks weaker, but that's why they play the games -- and the change in coaches enough to push the Penguins over the top? Is the compressed schedule and the Red Wings' injuries (and remember that Crosby and Malkin seemed on fumes last spring) enough to alter what otherwise looks like a statistical matchup that favors the champs? (For some great statistical comparisons going into this series, check out these posts at On the Forecheck and From the Rink.)
We can go player by player, injury by injury, but we don't know who's going to be healthy and who's going to get hot. So while I'm rooting for the Pens to pull it off, my overall impression is that this Penguins squad will make it a great series but more likely fall short to the typical Wings dominance. If it comes down to a Game 7, I think the Wings will prevail.
In 1985, the young upstart Flyers,
scared for their life led by fireball Mike Keenan to that regular season's best overall record, were handily dispatched in the finals 4-1 by the defending champion Oilers. It was men against boys, like 1983 and like 2008. But two years later, a little wiser and even more determined, the Flyers gutted out two one-goal victories to force a Game 7 for the 1987 Stanley Cup in Edmonton. Rookie Ron Hextall even won the Conn Smythe in the losing effort. But the dynastic Oilers took home the real prize.
With Crosby and Malkin, who would be surprised by an epic, series-altering individual performance? But barring a few of those or further Wings injuries, my hunch is this series will turn out less like 1984 and more like 1987 -- a fantastic series that went to the reigning giants of the era.