Offense: The Red Wings' offense is built around the best center foursome in the NHL: Sergei Fedorov, Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov and Kris Draper. Yzerman leads the NHL in playoff scoring with four goals, 16 assists. Lately, he has been teamed with Fedorov, second in postseason scoring with nine goals, eight assists, and power forward Brendan Shanahan. A wicked line. Larionov has 11 points and Draper, whose line produces energy more than points, has three. The Caps counter with two strong scoring lines and centers Adam Oates, Andrei Nikolishin, Mike Eagles/Esa Tikkanen and Dale Hunter. Oates centers for Joe Juneau, tied with Detroit's Vyacheslav Kozlov for the postseason lead in game-winning goals (4); Nikolishin does the job for speedy Peter Bondra, the NHL's leading goal scorer in the regular season. Eagles, meanwhile, works with the pesky Tikkanen and Kelly Miller, relying on experience and defensive skills. Hunter centers the checking line that mirrors Draper's as the tone-setter. Edge: Red Wings.
Defense: The Caps' defense offers an interesting mix of stay-at-home, and jump-into-the-play defensemen. One of each is paired with his opposite. Calle Johansson jumps, Mark Tinordi takes care of business at the blue line. Sergei Gonchar, perhaps the best young offensive defenseman in the league, with an NHL-high seven goals among defensemen, senses when to go, and Joe Reekie provides security behind him. Phil Housley can still go forward and provides strong leadership on the point of the power play. Linemate Brendan Witt is the physical presence, who makes the opposition pay a toll. A nice mix. Detroit has an equally fine group. The high-scoring Nicklas Lidstrom is paired with former Cap and future Hall of Famer Larry Murphy; Viacheslav Fetisov, the old war horse who provides a calming influence, is with rookie Anders Eriksson; and veterans Jamie Macoun and Bob Rouse keep the game simple and make the opposition pay a price. Murphy, Rouse, Macoun and Fetisov are all well over 30. No one has made them pay yet, but the Caps could. Edge: Red Wings.
Goalies: Washington's Olie Kolzig goes into the Finals with the best record among goalies in the postseason. He has a 1.69 goals-against average, four shutouts, a 12-5 record and a .946 save percentage. He has been the Caps' backbone. Backing him up is Bill Ranford, a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Detroit's Chris Osgood has been good enough. His numbers are well below Kolzig's, at 2.22 GAA and .916, but his feisty competitiveness has enabled him to get the job done. Looking at Kolzig and Osgood, they are opposites: Kolzig big and rangy; Osgood, small and contained. Edge: Capitals.
Special teams: The Capitals' power play has improved in each round of the playoffs. They are now third in the postseason standings with a 17.9 percent success rate. But it is the Caps' penalty-killing unit that has been the big story, killing 88 percent of the power plays. Detroit's power play stands eighth, at 15 percent, and has been out of sync of late, while its penalty killers have been a bit better than the Caps' at 88.2 percent. Edge: Capitals.
Coaches: Ron Wilson has been a master of motivation throughout the season. He proved he could beat the odds when he coached the U.S. team to the World Cup title two years ago. But here he is up against Scotty Bowman, a man who has been to the Stanley Cup Finals 13 times and won seven of them. Edge: Red Wings.
Intangibles: The Red Wings have been here three times in four years and, therefore, know what it takes to win the Cup. The Caps are first-timers. Ordinarily that would be a negative, but not here. The Caps learned about commitment throughout the season, and seasons before, fighting through endless injuries, and they've also overcome self-doubt and the doubts of others. This isn't business as usual for them. Edge: Capitals.
Prediction: In this, the year of the long-suffering, Earnhardt won Daytona, Elway won the Super Bowl and the Capitals, if Kolzig retains his edge, will win the Stanley Cup -- in seven games.
Pub Date: 6/09/98