Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Stanley wrap-up

What an ending that was to the Stanley Cup Finals on Monday! No one saw those two goals coming -- just 17 seconds apart with less than a minute and a half to go -- to completely upend all that had taken place that night.

One second the building was roaring. With the Bruins outplaying the Blackhawks and leading 2-1 as the clock wound down, Boston fans were certain their team was about to force the series to a seventh game...But the very next second, the puck was suddenly in Boston's net and the game was tied. The building abruptly fell silent...Then, 17 seconds after the ensuing faceoff, the puck was in Boston's net again and somehow the building became even silenter than silent.

In the blink of an eye, Beantown's puckheads went from crowing to catatonic while Chi-Town's went from sullen to ecstatic. Next thing you knew, fans had fled the building en masse and the Blackhawks were skating 'round the ice kissing Lord Stanley's Cup.

Every Cup presentation is an object lesson in what George Will describes as "sports serv(ing) society by providing vivid examples of excellence." It is also an object lesson in the importance of effort and persistence, for who can forget the image of Ray Bourque lifting the Cup in 2001, having finally won a championship after more than 20 years in the league? Or Dave Andreychuk doing the same in 2004? Or Zdeno Chara getting downright giddy when he hoisted it in 2011, more than a decade after arriving on this continent needing to engage in years of work to overcome the gangliness of his 6'9" frame?

The game that unfolded right before this year's presentation was even more of an object lesson in persistence. Every parent should show it to their kids as an example of why you should never stop grinding away and never let your guard down. Game Six gave stark proof that "it's never over 'til it's over" and "it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings" are wise truths, not mere words.

Having said that, here are a few more observations about the postseason that just ended:

The Forgotten One
I am surprised that almost nobody is talking about David Krejci's goal that didn't happen on Monday. In the first period, with Boston leading 1-0 and dominating pretty much every spot on the ice, Brad Marchand attacked down the left wing, drew Corey Crawford toward that side of the crease, and fired a perfect cross-ice pass to Krejci who was just to the right of the slot.

The net was w-i-d-e open and the puck hit the blade of Krejci's stick. But somehow he didn't have the stick positioned how it needed to be and the puck bounced wide, transforming what looked like a sure goal into something that didn't even count as a shot on goal. Had his stick been set ever so slightly different, the Bruins would have been up 2-0 after one instead of 1-0 after one, and who knows how that would have changed the complexion of the game?

The Conn Smythe
To be clear, Patrick Kane did deserve it. His deft goals in the Cup Finals combined with his elimination game hat trick in the conference finals are the stuff of which hockey legends are made, especially when you consider that he was already known for that famous goal that won the Cup in 2010.

However, several of his teammates deserved the Conn Smythe just as much. Hell, you could make an equally strong case for each of his linemates, since Jonathan Towes centered the line to perfection and Bryan Bickell's skating had a lot to do with opening the space in which Kane thrived. Corey Crawford was also deserving, as I will discuss below.

Awarding the trophy to Kane was awarding it by default. When no one is clearly ahead of the leading pack, you give the MVP to the highest profile player so long as he makes impact plays, which Kane certainly did. That no one was clearly ahead of the leading pack just shows how much of a team game hockey is. It also shows that we (by which I mean me and my fellow U.S.-born hockey fans) should not interpret Kane being the third straight American winner to mean that the U.S. has knocked Canada from the top of the hill. Sochi 2014 will provide the only stick by which to measure such a claim, and until then, depth alone tells us that Canada's game is undoubtedly Canada's game.

What can I say about Corey Crawford? You wouldn't know it from all the media howling after Game Four, but other than that one game, the Montreal native was stellar throughout the playoffs. He rang up a .932 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average, which is essentially the same postseason that Jonathan Quick had when he won the Conn Smythe last year. Plus, his goals-against was better than Tim Thomas's was when Thomas won the Conn Smythe in 2011. Many of the same people harping about Crawford giving up five goals in Game Four have conveniently forgotten that Thomas gave up five goals in three different games just to the Tampa Bay Lightning during his Conn Smythe run. And finally, the only reason Chicago was within striking distance to pull off Monday's comeback was that Crawford kept them alive by denying one excellent scoring chance after another.

If I am going to defend the Quebecer, I am also going to defend the Slovak that many in the media took to criticizing over the past week. Plus/minus is obviously an important stat, but it is often unfair and deceiving. Just because somebody was on the ice when the opposing team scored does not mean it was his play that allowed them to. Zdeno Chara played strong and stubborn throughout the playoffs, and to my eyes, he was not at fault in any of the goals Boston surrendered during the last three games. If any other defenseman had taken his spot, I believe the Bruins would have given up far more goals, especially in Games Four and Five.

There has been water cooler talk about whether the current Blackhawks deserve to be called a dynasty. I say not yet. Two Cups in four years, with an additional trip to the conference finals five years back, makes them a very special team that should be talked about for years to come -- especially with that remarkable 24-game unbeaten streak they had to open the season. But I think they need another championship ring before they can be mentioned in the same breath as the 1970's Habs (four straight Cups to close out the decade) and 1980's Islanders (four straight to open that decade) and 1980's Oilers (five in seven years to close out one decade and usher in the next).

Admittedly, I am being stodgy and old-fashioned by adhering to the traditional understanding of the word dynasty. If today's salary cap had existed back then, none of the above dynasties would have happened because none of them could have been sustained; and even before the salary cap, economics were already dictating that teams in non-leviathan cities like Edmonton would no longer be able to produce a dynastic champion. In fact, economics was the main reason the Oilers reign didn't continue even longer than it did, for it was economics that separated Gretzky from Edmonton and soon dissolved much of the remaining core in the prime of their careers -- only to see pieces of that core reconvene as New York Rangers and lead that franchise to its only championship in the last 73 years.

And that's enough for now. Until next time, take care...

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