PITTSBURGH -- It had always seemed inevitable, this latest Stanley Cup victory by the Detroit Red Wings, even when their most challenging opponent created an illusion that somehow it might not come to pass.
Maybe that's because this championship has really been three years in the making, in essence the post-lockout period that has seen the Red Wings win more games than anyone else and continue a long standard of excellence that has now brought them the NHL's fabled prize for the fourth time in 11 seasons.
|Nicklas Lidstrom is the first captain from Europe to lead a team to the Stanley Cup championship. (Getty Images)|
To underline the point, the Red Wings wrapped up their professional sports-best 17th consecutive playoff appearance -- which includes 11 division crowns -- with a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins that closed out the Stanley Cup Finals in six games. However, it wasn't decided until a desperation last-second shot by Penguins captain Sidney Crosby squirted just wide of the Red Wings goal.
"People probably thought we were going to drop off after the lockout, but we didn't lose a beat," said Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, the first European to captain a Stanley Cup champion. "But we've had the same core group of guys, four, five, six guys for a lot of years and and we've proven that under the new system where it's more of an even playing field that the team has really responded well.
"I'm very proud of this team."
He should be. So should everyone else on a Detroit team that ran through the postseason with the precision of Swiss watch. The Red Wings lost six times through four series, although were it not for an occasional remarkably hot night by an opposing goaltender, they may not have been beaten at all.
Detroit led or was tied nearly 90 percent of the minutes it played in these playoffs and outscored opponents 72 to 44, taking 287 more shots than it allowed. It was nothing short of dominant overall performance by a team few if any prognosticators expected to seriously contend before the season began.
Instead, the veteran-heavy Red Wings exploded out of the gate and effectively had first place in the overall standings sewn up by Christmas. A series of key injuries after the All-Star break brought the team back to earth temporarily, but once its health was restored, Detroit recalibrated and roared into the playoffs riding the momentum of a great finish.
Even so, there was some adversity to deal with. It began in the quarterfinals against Nashville, largely because Detroit's aging future Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek looked very much like a 43-year-old trying to compete in a young man's game. It continued into the final two rounds when Detroit failed twice to finish off teams at home with 3-1 series leads.
But in each case the Red Wings didn't flinch, using Chris Osgood to replace Hasek in Game 4 against the Predators before reeling off nine wins in a row, and then rebounding in the conference and Stanley Cup Finals when they wrapped up series victories on the road. In fact Detroit ended all four rounds away from home, using a stifling formula of speed, defense and an uncanny ability to control the puck through all three zones of the ice.
"Pittsburgh is a good hockey club, but I really thought at end of the day we deserved to win," Detroit forward Daniel Cleary said. "We were the best team all year, and we were the best team in this series."
Certainly the Red Wings were better than the Penguins in what was expected to be the NHL's best championship matchup in years. In some ways it lived up to the hype, mainly because of the gutsy effort the Penguins put together in Game 5 when they staved off elimination with a triple-overtime victory in Detroit and the heart-stopping finish they created in the finale.