The Detroit Red Wings have some of the best players in the NHL. Nicklas Lidstrom is the reigning Norris Trophy winner and one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history. Henrik Zetterberg is the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner and could be working on another. Pavel Datsyuk is the reigning Selke Trophy winner and is a finalist for the Hart Trophy this year. Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen are two of the best goal-scorers in the NHL. Without such a bevy of elite talent, the Wings would surely not be as good as they are. However, that top-tier talent isn't necessarily what separates the Wings from the rest of the teams in the NHL. Most good NHL teams can roll out two quality lines. Sure, the Wings top two lines are probably the best in the NHL but it's not by a considerable margin. What separates the Wings from the rest of the NHL is depth--crazy amounts of depth. Few teams can boast a third line as talented as Detroit’s trio of Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler, and Mikael Samuelsson. They have combined for 32 points so far in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s third line has combined for 19 points and gets articles like this written about them. Even fewer teams can boast fourth liners as impactful as Detroit’s Darren Helm. Helm is one of a glutton of players who frequent Detroit's fourth-line carousel and his perfomance in Game 5 against Chicago is yet another example of why it's so difficult to beat Detroit.
The Wings entered Game 5 in bad shape physically. Two of the best players in the NHL—Lidstrom and Datsyuk—didn’t play (Imagine what would happen to Pittsburgh without "The Kid" and "Gino"). Jonathan Ericsson had an emergency appendectomy. Kris Draper didn’t play. The Wings were desperate for production. Enter Helm. The Wings and Blackhawks played to a defensive stalemate for the first two periods but that might not have been the case if it weren’t for the heroic penalty killing of Helm midway through the second period. After a penalty to Brett Lebda left the Wings shorthanded, Helm embarked on what has to be considered one of the greatest penalty-kill performances in NHL history. He rushed the puck out of the Wings zone and proceeded to hang on to it for 25 seconds which would be an eternity at even-strength let alone down a man. All told, Helm’s efforts kept Chicago out of the Wings zone for roughly 40 seconds single-handedly eating the last 1/3 of Chicago’s power play. Check it out:
Helm, of course, went on to score the game-winner in overtime capping off a remarkable game for anyone let alone a fourth-liner. In fact, I’m not sure how he didn’t get the "First Star." For me, “greatest individual PK of all-time” + “OT Game-Winner” = First Star. Helm now boasts arguably one of the most peculiar and unique careers in NHL history. He has played in 23 career regular season games and 34 career playoff games. He has seven times as many career playoff points as he has regular season points. He is +4 all-time in the playoffs and -9 in the regular season. He has five career playoff goals and zero career regular season goals. He has more game-winning goals in the playoffs than he does career regular season goals. Enjoy these oddities while you can because Helm will very likely not see the minors again.
Interestingly, Helm's heroics were quickly followed by a). a Pittsburgh lovefest and b). the Wings getting screwed big-time. Many experts and "Crosby lovers" have jumped on the Pittsburgh bandwagon. I can only assume there are people out there picking the Wings to beat Pittsburgh but I actually haven't read/seen a national analyst pick the Wings, yet. In fact, there is plenty of fodder for conspiracy theorists given the NHL's recent highly questionable actions. Gary Bettman moved the Stanley Cup Finals up six days after Detroit and Pittsburgh breezed through the Conference Finals. Detroit is badly in need of rest--rest it rightfully earned by swiftly taking care of business against Chicago. Instead of getting rest, Bettman not only moved the series up but he promptly scheduled back-to-back games. Keep in mind the NHL has not scheduled back-to-back games in the Stanley Cup Finals in 54 years. Think Bettman would've moved the Finals up six days if Crosby and Malkin were injured? The irony--and subsequent stupidity--here is that if the Wings lost to Chicago in Game 5, and still won the series, they would've had until Friday, June 5th to rest for the Finals. Only the NHL could figure a way to punish a team for winning.
If that's not enough to get you fired up about the pro-Pittsburgh movement spearheaded by the NHL, take a look at the NHL's official 2008 Stanley Cup recap (shoutout to Nick for passing this along). Didn't Detroit win the Cup last year? Now read the recap for the 2007 Cup Final just below. Anaheim won the series and is rightfully the focus of the recap. Anaheim is mentioned by name six times in the recap and also has eight players mentioned by name. The Senators were only mentioned by name twice and had only three players mentioned. Conversely, in last year's Cup Final recap--a series in which Detroit won--Pittsburgh is mentioned 13 times and has 11 players mentioned by name. Detroit is mentioned 10 times and has 7 players mentioned by name. Bettman should probably stop writing the recaps.
With the Wings banged up and forced to play back-to-back games on short-rest, this series appears to be a toss-up. However, while Pavel Datsyuk and Marian Hossa have spent the better part of the playoffs struggling, the one consistent for the Wings has been its depth. Expecting Detroit's depth to magically disappear for the Stanley Cup Finals is ignoring history. That depth may also be the one thing Bettman cannot do anything about.