Not the Final the NHL Deserves, but the Final the NHL Needs
Another hockey season has reached its climax. Through two games, everyone can agree that these finals have everything the league needed. Two remarkably balanced teams have slugged through three rounds to reach the top of the mountain, and they are going punch for punch in a heavyweight fight worthy of an Original Six matchup.
And to think, we were hours away from no season at all.
In ways, it’s ironic that the NBA and NHL are reaching new heights after their labor squabbles. All the talk of the loyal fans turning away can’t keep their eyes away from great drama. In the NBA it’s the approaching train wreck that is LeBron James “going Cleveland” and Tony Parker’s ill-timed hamstring injury. For the NHL, the action is just too good to turn off.
Both teams hit the brink at some point during the postseason. For the Bruins, it was the pesky Maple Leafs who choked away the series lead in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks had to overcome hockey’s unflappable veteran bunch in Detroit.
Now you have two young goalies playing at the top of their games in Corey Crawford and Tuukka Rask. Both bided their time when their teams won Lord Stanley’s Cup, Rask behind Tim Thomas and Crawford behind Antti Niemi. Now they are both in contention for the Conn Smythe.
Jonathan Toews is bringing his talents to the forefront of hockey again, providing another young face for fans to latch on to. As a well versed hockey fan told me last week, Toews has some Steve Yzerman in him. Yzerman has spoken highly of the forward, and if the comparisons are true, the Blackhawks will continue to be a dynasty. He’s not the only star fans are being exposed to in Chicago. Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp are all great players in this league. The Blackhawks may be the closest team in the league to the Penguins in individual talent, but it’s more spread out and comes with more balance on defense (and a goalie who doesn’t sport soul patch as innocuous as Howie Mandel’s).
For the Bruins, it’s the incredible depth that drives their style. They are led by a big bruising blueliner with a 104 mile per hour slap shot in Zdeno Chara. David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic have been great, but it’s the third line that has been clutch throughout the season. Daniel Paille scored the game winner in the first overtime of game two after being placed on a line with Chris Kelly and highflying Tyler Seguin, who coincidentally leads his team in shots in the post season with just one goal. They mercilessly beat you into submission and then create the necessary traffic to score. They wait for mistakes, and then crush their opponent with it on the counter. Few teams are as dangerous after a neutral zone turnover. Of course it’s also worth noting that Jaromir Jagr hasn’t scored yet. He’s due for a game winning goal.
And both teams are led by five-star generals in Claude Julian and Joel Quenneville. They play in front of rabid crowds in great hockey cities, which also happen have large populations. No wonder the ratings for the first game (the best rating for a Game One since 1997) were so good.
So this is what Gary Bettman and his gang of traveling scam artists got? They hold their small but loyal fan base hostage and get rewarded with an all-American final of historic teams with historic balance and young stars that could drive the league for the next decade. The first two games were instant overtime classics, and the final five should be equally entertaining.
This isn’t what Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League deserved, but it’s exactly what the league and its fans needed.
Michael Watts covers the NHL (Rangers) and MLS (Red Bulls) for WFUV Sports. He can be found on twitter @MikeWattsOnAir.