Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Greatest Spectator Sport on Earth

Having started this month with a post about basketball, I feel honor bound to end it with one about hockey.

I have written before about what separates hockey from the other team sports that are played professionally. Three days after that post, following the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup victory, I closed my very next post by writing that “I hope the Lightning rise again and knock them off.” Well, last night the Lightning did that indeed, edging the Penguins 1-0 in Game Seven of their first round playoff series.

There were many great things about the series, including clutch performances by Martin St. Louis and nifty pass-and-shoot scoring plays by Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim, which resulted in carbon copy goals the last two games. But the greatest thing was the performance of 41-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson last night, as he made one remarkable save after another to steal the game from a Pittsburgh squad that outshot his own by 36 to 23. Though I am not saying the Lightning have a realistic chance to win the Cup this year, I am going to point out that no team has ever won the Cup without having their goalie save their ass in a couple of playoff games along the way.

Of course, the game of hockey -- popular in many parts of the globe and invented more than a century ago -- is much, much bigger than my home town team which is playing its nineteenth season. Hockey is played at a high level in so many countries that every NHL roster reads like a United Nations roll call, chock full not only of Canadians and Americans but also of Russians, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, and more. You know the players on an NHL roster are the best the world is able to offer, as opposed to an NFL roster on which almost 100 percent of the players are Americans because, well, football is played almost nowhere else.

Along the same lines, I love that hockey ignites feelings of national pride. When Sweden and Finland met in the gold medal match of the 2006 Winter Olympics, it was such a big deal that those neighboring countries practically closed for business so their citizens would all be able to watch the contest.

When the Czech Republic beat Russia for the 1998 gold, throngs of people gathered in Prague to celebrate the victory and many of them held signs proclaiming “Hasek is God” -- in deference to Dominic Hasek, the goaltender who dominated the Olympics to deliver the gold to his homeland.

Talk to everyday Canadians and you will quickly realize that the Stanley Cup means more to them -- much more -- than the Liberty Bell means to everyday Americans. Hockey Night in Canada remains a television institution there years after Monday Night Football became humdrum here, and Don Cherry at age 77 is just as puckish and entertaining as he has always been.

Meanwhile, American hockey fans are not foolish enough to suggest that the U.S.A. has produced the same depth of talent over the decades as Canada -- but at the same time, we don’t hesitate to mention that despite getting a “late start” when it comes to hockey, our country’s top line or two is every bit as good as Canada’s top line or two. We look back with pride at the U.S.A.’s victory in the 1996 World Cup, and we feel the bitter sting of the U.S.A.’s losses in the gold medal games of the 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics.

I love that there is something palpably, if inexplicably, holy about the game. Is there another sport that could inspire a column like this one from 2002, in which John Buccigross waxes poetic about that year’s Western Conference Final by comparing it, song by song, to the feeling one gets while listening to U2’s Joshua Tree? I don’t think so.

One round in, this year’s playoffs are off to a spectacular start. Not only did my Lightning win a Game Seven last night, so did the Boston Bruins -- in overtime, against the Montreal Canadiens, continuing one of the NHL’s oldest and most revered rivalries. And the night before that, there were two other Game Sevens.

The first round featured phenomenal and surprisingly frequent comebacks in games, with San Jose coming back from being down 5-0 to beat LA, and Philadelphia coming back from being down 3-0 to beat Buffalo.

It also featured inspiring comebacks in series, with the Lightning needing to erase a three-games-to-one deficit to eliminate Pittsburgh...and with defending champion Chicago falling behind Vancouver three-games-to-zero, then rallying to win the next three in convincing fashion before falling in overtime in Game Seven.

And there have been underlying spectacles like the constant wondering about whether the Phoenix Coyotes will relocate back to Winnipeg during the off-season.

Hockey is the sports world’s cutting edge of diligence, excitement, and drama. Anybody who denies that doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Addendum: Even though I acknowledged that hockey is bigger than just my team, I have to mention some impressive things about the Lightning's performance in the first round, largely because the MSM will not give them the attention they deserve: 1) they held Pittsburgh scoreless on 34 of 35 power plays for the series, including the last 1:33 of Game Seven when they were down two men because Pittsburgh pulled their goalie; 2) they became only the 24th team to ever come back from a three-games-to-one deficit and win a series; 3) they are now 3-0 in Game Sevens; 4) Roloson has a .949 save percentage so far this post-season, which is tops among everyone; and 5) Pittsburgh had not lost three straight games at all in almost 16 months, yet the Lightning beat them in three straight playoff games. Go Bolts!

Update, 5/1/11: Once again, I have to make sure the Lightning get their due. Since I published this post, they have made a statement in the second round by taking a 2-0 series lead over the top-seeded Washington Capitals...but what is truly amazing is the fact that their penalty kill has not only remained spectacular, but actually gained strength. The Lightning have held the Caps scoreless in all eleven power plays they have faced thus far, making them a mind-blowing 45 of 46 -- or 97.8 percent -- through nine playoff games.

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