NHL in line for real growth

DETROIT -- The face of the NHL is scruffy, Sidney Crosby's attempt at a playoff beard having resulted in fuzz more befitting a high school prom king than a player who carried the Pittsburgh Penguins from near-extinction to the Stanley Cup finals.

Crosby, a few months too young to legally drink adult beverages, will take on the biggest challenge of his career starting tonight at Joe Louis Arena. The final between the Penguins and Red Wings is the most eagerly anticipated in years, promising world-class skills, smart defense and the grit that sets the hockey playoffs apart from other postseason tournaments.

Although Crosby tries to deflect attention to teammates, this will be his show. Ken Holland, Detroit's general manager, on Friday declared Crosby "the face of the game, of our game, in the United States," and no one thought to argue.

Centering for wingers Marian Hossa and Pascual Dupuis, Crosby will see a lot of Henrik Zetterberg and wingers Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom. The Red Wings like to form five-man units, so five-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom and mobile Brian Rafalski will also be in his way.

If Crosby and the Penguins can beat that -- Zetterberg shares the playoff scoring lead with Crosby, Datsyuk is tied for third and Holmstrom is a net-crashing nuisance -- they'll deserve to win.

"The two best teams in the playoffs are there," Crosby said. "But at the same time individually there's a lot of players I think that are pretty exciting to watch. So it makes for a great series, for sure."

Providing great depth behind Crosby are explosive Evgeni Malkin, who's 21; superb penalty killer Jordan Staal, 19, and dogged Maxime Talbot, who recently turned 24.

"The young guys, they just go out and play and have fun," said defenseman Hal Gill, a graybeard at 33. "I'm kind of following their lead and just enjoying it."

The Red Wings are also formidable everywhere even without Johan Franzen, who had a playoff-high 12 goals -- five of them game-winners -- before suffering a concussion. He skated Friday and said he felt fine but will sit tonight.

The Red Wings have gotten contributions from Hossa and Datsyuk, each with nine goals and 19 points. Bruising Niklas Kronwall leads defensemen in playoff scoring with 12 points.

The Red Wings will send out a veteran team though 46-year-old defenseman Chris Chelios isn't expected to play because of a leg injury. Holmstrom, Lidstrom, rugged winger Darren McCarty and grinders Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper played on Detroit's Cup-winning teams in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

Kronwall, Zetterberg and Datsyuk balance that with youthful energy.

"The young guys are driving the bus for sure," said Coach Mike Babcock, back in the finals after guiding the Ducks to a seven-game loss to New Jersey in 2003. The Red Wings also have a deeper resolve than a year ago, when they lost the Western Conference finals to the eventual champion Ducks.

"We're more hungry," Holmstrom said. "It was a big disappointment last year and we really want to go forward. I think all the young guys this year are older and they're better players than a year ago, and I think that's huge for us."

If that turns out to be bigger than the influence Crosby exerts, the Red Wings will prevail. If not, the face of the NHL will wear a triumphant smile through his sparse beard.


Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.


NHL playoffs

Best of seven; *if necessary; all games at 5 p.m. Pacific



Today...at Detroit

Monday...at Detroit

Wednesday...at Pittsburgh

May 31...at Pittsburgh

June 2...at Detroit*

June 4...at Pittsburgh*

June 7...at Detroit*

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