Friday, April 07, 2006

Breaking it Down: Wings vs. Pistons

With the NHL and NBA regular seasons winding down, it appears that both Detroit teams are going to have the best record in their respective leagues heading into the playoffs. The Pistons currently have 3 games up on the Spurs with 7 to play, and the Wings have a 4 point lead over Ottawa with a game in hand, and 6 for the Senators to play.

So the question is, with both teams heading into the playoffs as the favorite to take home the hardware, who stands a better chance of giving us a parade downtown this summer? Let’s break it down:

The Pistons have had a remarkable (and well-documented) string of good luck in the injury department. Their top six players have missed an incredible ZERO man-games to injury this year after having completed relatively injury-free seasons the past two seasons as well. But those in the media (::cough:: BillSimmons ::cough::) who knock their accomplishments by pointing out that Wade was hurt last year, Malone was hurt in the Finals, etc. seem to forget that without Billups rolling his ankle on Eric Snow’s foot, the Pistons could be looking to go to a fourth straight NBA Finals this year (Yes they got swept by Jersey, but the first two games were both very, very close and with a healthy Billups, they likely are up 2-0 going back to Jersey instead of down 2-0). So the Pistons know all too well what injuries can do to a title run.

The Wings have a high amount of man-games missed due to injury this year, but that number is skewed by Nik Kronwall and Jiri Fischer being out for most of the season. Legace, Lang, and Samuelsson have all had their bumps and bruises, but apart from Fischer, everyone is expected to be around for the playoffs. They’re being cautious currently with injuries to Schneider and Datsyuk, but neither appear to be far too serious and both players can use the rest anyway.

Edge: Even

Are They Playoff Ready?
With injuries (knock on wood) not a factor on either team, we move now to trying to figure out if the teams are playoff ready. With the Pistons, it’s a no-brainer. They’ve had a very successful run in the last 3 post-seasons, including a championship and another Finals appearance. The only question marks are will they be able to lock down on defense when it matters with Flip behind the bench instead of LB (indications lately have been yes), will they be able to flip the switch when they haven’t played a meaningful game in the better part of two months, and will the wear and tear on the starters get to them (we’ll get to that below). This team knows how to get it done come playoff time and I expect their postseason experience will keep serving them well this postseason. It has to be mentioned as well that Flip Saunders has not had a great deal of success in the post-season. Or a decent deal of success…The again, the West was really, really tough when Minnesota had their best teams.

It’s a little more of a gray area with the Wings. They haven’t gotten out of the second round since Scotty Bowman laced up his skates for a final skate with Lord Stanley’s Cup. Datsyuk hasn’t registered a goal in the last two postseasons. The Wings just haven’t shown an ability to get past a trapping team with a quality goaltender as of late.

That was under Ray Rhodes…I mean Dave Lewis, though. If President’s Trophies meant anything of consequence, Lewis would still be the coach of this team. Mike Babcock has already proved that he can take a team to the Finals (Anaheim 2003). And, unlike Lewis, he appears to actually be coaching during the game. The players love him, and he’s shown an uncanny knack for putting line combinations together that are immediately effective.

Manny Legace is going in as the starter once again. He got a brief stint as starter during the 2004 playoffs before getting scapegoated after the Wings struggled in the early-going against Nashville. He wasn’t bad in those games, he just didn’t get a lot of help, and the gum-chewer made a change for the sake of making a change. He’s got a Stanley Cup winner behind him, and if he falters, the Wings have the luxury of putting in a guy who can allow 90-footers with the best of them (to be fair, Osgood was absolutely outstanding in their win over Calgary a few nights ago).

The success of the Wings in the postseason will come down to how ready they are to win ugly playoff-style hockey games, if the refs are willing to keep clamping down on obstruction, and if they get anything out of their goaltending.

Edge: Pistons

How many teams in each league can legitimately challenge for the Championship? In the NBA, you’ve got the Pistons, Nets, Spurs, Heat, Mavericks, and maybe the Cavaliers (though I hesitate mentioning them when they’ll just be happy to make the playoffs). In the NHL, you’ve got the Wings, Stars, Flames, Predators, Mighty Ducks, Senators, and Hurricanes at the bare, bare minimum. I think you also have to include the Sharks, Flyers, Devils, Sabres and Rangers are teams that could at least make a decent run into the playoffs. With the Mighty Ducks and Flames in the Finals the last two seasons, and the Wild making the conference championship, it just goes to show you can’t discount a team getting a hot goalie and making a run.

The Wings are in a nice position as it appears they won’t have to deal with the Flames or Stars until the third round, but a first-round matchup with the Sharks would be far more difficult than the team with the best record in the league should get. Apart from the Sharks, the teams at the bottom of the West aren’t scary.

It also sets up nice for the Pistons, as they won’t have to see Miami or New Jersey until the Eastern Conference Finals. Getting the #1 seed is important, no? A second round matchup with the Cavs or Wizards could be interesting though. The Pistons have had their troubles this year with each of those teams.

Edge: Pistons. Yes, one player can make all the difference in the NBA, but the Pistons start 4 All-Stars. We’ve seen it time and time again how a hot goalie can upset the balance of an entire postseason, and you have to worry about so many average teams with great goalies in the NHL.

The Pistons have the best starting five in the league, and one of the best sixth-men in basketball in McDyess. After that, things start to get a little shaky. Tony Delk has been another genius pickup by Joe Dumars. He has added scoring off the bench that we weren’t getting from Carlos Arroyo. Lindsey can still lock down with the best of them and hit a three when he needs to. Mo Evans is an energy guy. I would have liked to have seen more of Carlos Delfino as he’s been great in flashes. Dale Davis is there for one thing only…to buy minutes and fouls if they play Shaq. It’s not a great bench, but with the acquisition of Delk, I’m not sure that they aren’t at least a little better off than they were last year.

The Wings on the other hand, have ten guys with thirty or more points (Draper may make it 11), and seven guys with 20+ goals (Williams could be 8). Add in the 1989 version of Steve Yzerman, who has been Detroit’s best player for the last two or three weeks and you’ve got a team with scary depth up front. They’ve got a plethora of puck-moving defensemen, and they’ve got a Stanley Cup winning goalie (albeit the Wings won in spite of him) on their bench. This team is deep, and they’re in a much better position to deal with an injury than they were two years ago when Robert Lang’s hand injury ended their chances of beating Calgary.

Edge: Red Wings

Misc. Factors:
Special teams plays a huge factor in the NHL, and the Wings are toward the top of both the Power Play and the Penalty Kill. They have the #1 power play in the league (and have all season) and are #3 on the PK (though they’ll be #1 amongst playoff teams in the West). With the increase in the number of penalties throughout hockey (we’ll see if it lasts) it can’t hurt to be amongst the best whether you’re killing a penalty, or playing a man up. They have failed to score a PPG in just 17 games this season (though four of those have come in the last 6 games).

The Wings also have had a record-breaking season on the road this year. With one more victory, they will have set a new NHL mark for road wins in a season. They’re great at home, but they admittedly play a less flashy game on the road, and just go about their business.

The Pistons are almost automatic at home, with just one loss the entire season coming in regulation at the Palace (and at 34-3 record overall). With home court advantage for the entire playoffs nearly locked up, you gotta like that statistic.

Edge: Even. The Wings are good at home and great on the road. The Pistons are great at home and good on the road. They’re both in great shape.

As the NHL and NBA seasons have gone on, I’ve started to feel more and more that I really like the Wings’ chances better than the Pistons. But a big part of that has been that the Pistons have looked completely disinterested for the better part of a month and a half. I don’t doubt that a team of their caliber can flip the switch when they want to. That said, it’s not like they’ve been losing a lot of games in the process. The Wings have been workmanlike since the Olympics and have turned a once-close division fight with Nashville into a laugher.

After breaking it down, I really do like both teams’ chances to get rings this summer, but due to the quality of the competition in the respective leagues, and their amount of recent post-season experience, I’ll give the overall edge to:

Deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetroit Basssssssssssketballlllllllllllllll!

In all reality though, its:
Edge: Detroit Sports Fans

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