There have been brighter days for the NHL.
Talk about understatement.
With a lockout looming (and probable), a bad public rep as a "fighting sport," and ever-rising salaries to be paid with dwindling attendance revenue, the NHL would be hard-pressed right now to find the double-A batteries run a flashlight, much less the fuel to keep its engine running. However, due to two spunky little teams from the Middle of Nowhere and Somewhere to the Northeast of Nowhere, the NHL at least has something to cling to while its sport slips from between its fingers.
And now, five reasons that this year's Stanley Cup Finals is the best there ever was.
Reason Numba Five: The Sound and the Fury
Could two professional sporting franchises possibly be as far from the public awareness as Tampa, Florida, or Calgary, all the way up in mythical Canadia? Doubtful. When people think of rabid fans, they think of the Oakland Raider fans, Chicago Cub fans, or the penultimate fans, those of Detroit (who light their city on fire pretty much whether their teams win or lose). When the Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flames were locked for this year's finals, there was collective tongue-clicking and head-shaking throughout the league and sports world. Great, everyone deadpanned in their minds. A lackluster series with lackluster fans. Just what's needed to revive a sport in cardiac arrest. Fortunately, the dedicated fans of both teams have showed up in a big way. Anyone else notice how Flames and Lightning players alike routinely miss icing and offside whistles? Sorry, couldn't hear your answer: the fans are drowning you out. Calgary fans already had their patented "sea of red," in game five Tampa Bay fans countered with their very own "sea of white" (they were going to all wear black, Tampa's home color for the night, but they were afraid goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin would lose the puck amid the shirts. Talk about dedication).
Reason Number Four: They gots brick walls between them pipes!
Nikolai Khabibulin. Miikka Kiprusoff. Sound like the names of your local ethnic supermarkets, no? In the past months, these names have become synonyms for "best goaltenders in the sport. Big period." Everyone knows the team to beat in the NHL playoffs is the one with the hot goalie (cough cough hack last year's Anaheim Mighty Ducks excuse me). This year, there were two. Strangely enough, the teams with those goalies are facing each other in the Stanley Cup Finals. Khabibulin of Tampa Bay has a ridiculous goals against average of 1.76 in the playoffs, while Kiprusoff sits on his 1.86. Both goalies have a save percentage over .900, and each has over 14 wins.
By show of hands, how many people are still surprised these guys carried their teams?
Reason Number Three: There Goes My Hero
Everyone loves a hero. America is patently obsessed with them. And this year's series is chock full of them. Jarome Iginla. Brad Richards. Martin Gelinas. Martin St. Louis. Fredrik Modin. Craig Conroy. All of these are key players for their respective teams, all of them have scored critical goals, and all of them could garner the MVP should their team win the series. The stories behind these players are even better: shuttling around the league, being stuck on a mediocre team for however many years; even breaking into a predominantly white sport to become one of its best players, in Iginla's case. Any set of playoffs needs a hero of some form, and this year's Cup finals offers them up in spades.
Reason Numero Dos: The (Under)Dogs of War
There's only one thing the world loves more than a hero: an underdog. Why do people root against the Yankees, the Lakers, the Duke Blue Devils? Because they're the favorites. They're supposed to win, and it's basic human nature to despise that. And this year is no David versus Goliath… this is a David versus David. Take your pick and hang on for the ride. Tampa Bay, stuck in the weakest division in the NHL for so many years and still unable to field a decent team, finally comes into its own to ascend to the Cup Finals. Calgary, a small market team from America, Jr., hasn't been to the finals in forever. This is Canada's first shot at Cup in years. The weight of hockey's founding country rests on the shoulders of virtual unknowns dressed in red and white. Throw in Flames' coach Darryl Sutter's biting comments about the league's bias against "small-market, blue collar Canadian teams" and you've got a whopper of a match-up, and of a series.
The Big Foam Finger: The Hockey
No one saw that coming, right?
Speaking strictly in hockey play terms, this is the best series to ever grace the ice. We've gone back and forth so far, with Calgary winning the first game, Tampa Bay winning the next, etc., such that the series stands 3-3 headed back to Tampa Bay tonight for a climactic game seven. Defense has dominated this series, with only 24 goals scored total, and two shut-outs in games three and four. The hockey being played is the basic model of the sport: play good defense, break the puck out quickly, create offensive chances by parking bodies in front. Simple, physical play. And it's beautiful. We've had a suspension, two nail-biting overtime games, tension so think no knife could cut it, and adrenalin-pumping, heart-stopping near death experiences on both sides. Tonight's game seven promises to be the best game in recallable history. Remember the emotion from Marin St. Louis and crew of Tampa the other night after that OT game-winner? Magnify that a couple hundred thousand times and you've got tonight.
Come 8 P.M. tonight, the general public may shy away from the violence, the sports world may dismiss the series as a small-market snore-fest, and the rest of the NHL may turn their backs on the one good thing they have going for them in preparation for their impending doom.
But I, for one, cannot wait.
Nick Falgout. Nick Falgout was bored one day and decided to change his Chips staff information. And now, for a touching song lyric: "I'm a reasonable man, get off my case Get off my case, get off my case." ~ Radiohead, "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd … More »