When Pavel Datsyuk was lost to a broken hand on December 22nd against the Vancouver Canucks, every Red Wing fan around the world experienced a sense of panic, and for good reason. At the time of his injury, Datsyuk was the Wings' leading scorer, and his absence left a gaping hole in the team's offense. In the 19 games that followed, the Wings went 10-7-2, well off the winning pace they had been on earlier in the season. With the return of Datsyuk to the Red Wings' lineup, fans of the Winged Wheel are breathing a little easier now that the Eurotwins have been reunited.
Compare the feeling in Detroit to that in Pittsburgh. The Penguins reported that star center Evgeni Malkin could miss the rest of this season with a torn ACL and MCL. Malkin is the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner and an integral part of the Penguins' attack. While he has not put up fantastic numbers this year, he is still a threat to score every time he is on the ice. Combined with Sidney Crosby's continued issues with concussions, the Penguins have gone from Cup contenders to just trying to tread water in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
These two injuries raise the question of whether a team requires an elite one-two punch at forward to legitimately contend for a Stanley Cup. Red Wing fans are very familiar with the Wings' version of the double-threat, Datsyuk and Zetterberg. But what about the last few Stanley Cup winners? Have they had a strong combination at forward that struck fear in the hearts of the other team? I looked back at the last 5 Cup winners and found some interesting answers. Findings and predictions after the jump.
We've all heard the adage that "defense wins championships", and this is as true in hockey as it is in other sports. Looking back at the five Cup winners since the lockout, only the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes and 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins finished lower than 7th overall in team defense in the regular season (19th and 17th, respectively). However, the playoffs were a different story, as the last five teams to win the Stanley Cup have all finished no lower than 5th in playoff GAA (lowest was the Blackhawks last year). We here in Detroit are well aware of how important team defense is: in 2008, the Wings finished 1st not only in the regular season but in the playoffs as well for GAA. That's not to say that those teams had the best goaltending: only Chris Osgood won the Cup and finished with the lowest GAA among the starting goaltenders in a given playoff year (no, that's not a typo: I checked 6 times to make sure that was right). While goaltending is important, it can be overcome if the other facets of a team's game are impressive.
Having a strong defense corps is important, and I would argue that in order for a team to win the Cup, they should have at least 1 "elite" defenseman. However, this can also be overcome. For example, name a defenseman on the 2006 Hurricanes that could be considered "great"; how about the 2009 Penguins? While Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill both had strong performances that year in the playoffs, neither one can be considered a top-flight defenseman. While having a guy that can eat up a ton of minutes against the other team's top lines is a luxury few teams enjoy, it's a hole that can be filled with a number of better defenseman to make up a corps that is good as a unit, even if the individuals are not the greatest.
Where I feel the Cup winners separate themselves from the rest of the league are at the forward position. Again, looking back to the 2005-06 season, the teams that were the most successful had a one-two punch up front that was hard to beat, especially in the playoffs. In fact, every single Cup winner with the exception of Anaheim in 2007 had a forward finish either first or second on playoff scoring, and in 2 instances, that team had the top 2 scorers (Carolina and Pittsburgh). When the Wings won in 2008, they had 3 of the top 6 scorers in the playoffs, including the leading point-getter and leading goal-scorer. The interesting thing about this is that, with the exception of Malkin and Crosby in 2009, these forwards played on the same line, making a superstar combination that was almost impossible to stop. Remember how sure you were that Datsyuk and Zetterberg were going to score in 2008? Chicago fans felt the same way last year with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. It's a huge advantage to be able to put out a line that the other team has very little chance in stopping offensively, and when the players are also great in their own end (like Dats and Z are), it makes them that much more dangerous.
What does this all mean? Probably nothing., but, one can't help but look at the teams that are both currently in a playoff position and boast a lethal pair of forwards and see that there are a few teams that we as Wing fans should be wary of. Of the teams currently occupying the 16 playoff positions, 7 have at least 2 players among the top 30 scorers in the NHL*. Those teams are as follows (team, current playoff position, players, rank among top 30 scorers):
Vancouver (1st in West) - Daniel Sedin (2nd), Henrik Sedin (4th), Ryan Kesler (10th)
Dallas (3rd in West) - Brad Richards (6th), Loui Eriksson (12th), Mike Ribeiro (23rd)
San Jose (6th in West) - Joe Thornton (28th), Dany Heatley (26th)
Anaheim (7th in West) - Corey Perry (7th), Teemu Selanne (21st)
Philadelphia (1st in East) - Claude Giroux (14th), Jeff Carter (18th), Mike Richards (20th), Danny Briere (30th)
Tampa Bay (2nd in East) - Steven Stamkos (1st), Martin St. Louis (5th)
Washington (5th in East) - Alex Ovechkin (9th), Nicklas Backstrom (16th)
Besides the obvious scoring power noted on that list, I also notice that there are a number of really good defensive forwards there, most notably Kesler and Richards. I also notice some teams that are conspicuously absent, including Nashville, Phoenix, Pittsburgh (with Crosby in the top-30), and Boston, all teams that some think have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs. You'll also notice that Chicago is nowhere to be found, but that's because they currently sit 11th in the conference, which absolutely breaks my heart.
If you ask me, great goaltending and a solid defense corps are really nice things to have in the playoffs, but they can be overcome by having two of the better forwards in the game on the ice at the same time. Looking at the likely contenders for the Cup this year, one common component to all of those teams are two guys who complement and motivate each other. I envision the Stanley Cup playoffs as a giant sack race, where the two forwards put the team on their backs and race for the finish line; the only question is which pair can carry their team the farthest.
*(I am also including Detroit in this, because Henrik Zetterberg is currently 8th overall in scoring and Pavel Datsyuk was clearly on pace to end up in the top 30. Also, this is a Wing blog and they are the two best overall forwards in the NHL.)