The Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins had played an exciting Stanley Cup Finals in 2008, with the Penguins staving off elimination in the closing seconds of Game 5, and then the Red Wings going on the road to take Game 6 and hoist the Cup. It was a good enough Finals that these two Rustbelt franchises with passionate fan bases decided to do it all over again at the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals. This time, the series went the distance and the Penguins got their first Cup since the Mario Lemieux era.
Pittsburgh was 57 games into an 82-game regular season schedule when they decided to make a coaching change. The Pens were struggling along at 27-25-5 when Michael Therrien was canned and Dan Bylsma handed the reins. The change had an immediate impact, as the Penguins finished 18-3-4 and were the #4 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Detroit had rolled to a division title and #2 seed in the Western Conference behind a well-balanced lineup of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen, all of whom were 30-goal scorers—in fact, Hossa lit the lamp 40 times. The Red Wings looked deeper offensively then the Penguins. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were great players, each clearing the 30-goal and 70-assist threshold, but there wasn’t the same depth.
Both teams were more reliant on their offenses to win. Detroit had the league’s most prolific attack, while Pittsburgh was fourth. Conversely, both were mediocre defensively, with the Red Wings having 36-year-old Chris Osgood, whose best days were in the rearview mirror, in goal while the Penguins had inconsistent Marc-Andre Fleury. Each team ranked in the lower half of the NHL in goals allowed.
Nonetheless, each moved through their respective conference playoffs with only one significant challenge—they both had to go seven games to win the second round. Pittsburgh went on the road to face the Washington Capitals and won a Game 7. Detroit won their decisive game at home against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The scare survived, each team took care of business and got to the Finals rematch.
Osgood was the story of the first two games in Detroit. He saved 31 of 32 shots in both Games 1 & 2 and the Red Wings won each game by a 3-1 count. Hossa had two assists in Game 2, as the Red Wings answered an early Malkin power play goal with three goals in succession.
When the series went to the Steel City, it was a different story. The scoring went fast and furious in the first period of Game 3. Malkin had two early assists for Pittsburgh. Zetterberg and Franzen each had a goal and an assist for Detroit and it was 2-2 at the first intermission. The game settled down and was scoreless in the second period.
Then came the goal that finally swung the momentum of these Finals. It’s appropriate that both Malkin and Crosby were involved and more so that these two skilled passers did it not by scoring, but on a double assist. They fed Sergei Gonchar for the tiebreaking goal, the Pens added an empty-netter and with a 4-2 win the Stanley Cup Finals were competitive again.
Malkin scored quickly off the power play in Game 4, though the Red Wings answered with two goals of their own. In the second period, the Penguins ripped off three goals in succession, Crosby scoring one and assisting on another and Malkin tacking on another assist. The 4-2 score held through the end as Fleury turned back 37 of 39 shots Detroit fired on him.
The series was tied, but the change in venue again produced a change in momentum. Game 5 was moving along, fairly normal, after one period. Then Pittsburgh was hit with five penalties in the second period. Detroit capitalized with three power play goals, plus one more at even strength. The game ended 5-0 and the Red Wings were a victory away from a repeat Cup and their fifth in the last 13 years.
That fourth win never came. Fleury got locked in and saved 25/26 shots in Game 6 for the home fans. It was the unknown players who lifted the Penguin offense—after a scoreless first period, Tyler Kennedy first assisted Jordan Staal, then Kennedy scored one of his own. Pittsburgh hung on for a 2-1 win.
Game 7 broke the home team’s dominance, as Pittsburgh followed the same path they had in Game 6. The first period was scoreless, and then one of the under the radar players delivered. Maxime Talbot scored twice in a ten-minute span in the second period. Fleury saved 23/24 shots and the Penguins hung on for a 2-1 win that clinched the Stanley Cup.
Malkin was named winner of the Conn Smythe Award, as MVP of the entire postseason. He scored 14 goals and dished 22 assists, while always being involved at key times. But it was the depth—the area where Pittsburgh seemed to suffer by comparison to Detroit—that had made all the difference when the money was on the table.