Saturday, May 31, 2014

Prelude Greatness

Watching the final minutes of Game Two between Chicago and Los Angeles, I found myself thinking about how much of hockey's greatest competition has occurred not in the Stanley Cup Finals, but in the conference finals that precede them.

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In 1994 it seemed like the whole world was expecting to see the New York Rangers hoist the Cup and break their 54-year drought. That year's team was definitely a Rangers squad, with Mike Richter and Brian Leetch both in their prime. Richter was establishing himself as the best-ever American goalie, while the Texas-born Leetch was lighting up the postseason en route to becoming the first non-Canadian to win the Conn Smythe.

Nevertheless, the main reason for all the title talk was the fact that New York's roster featured four veterans from the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, all of whom were four years removed from their last championship and hungry to burnish their legacies by winning another before hanging up their skates: Craig MacTavish was about to turn 36, Jari Kurri was 34, Mark Messier 33, and Esa Tikkanen 29.

But championships must be won -- they are never bestowed -- and before the Rangers could compete for it they had to get past an unexpectedly ferocious foe from across the river.

Back then the New Jersey Devils were an unheralded franchise playing third banana in the NYC metro area. They had settled in East Rutherford 12 years earlier, following stints in Kansas City and Denver. Conventional wisdom held that they simply weren't in the same league as the blueblood team from Manhattan, but the Devils themselves refused to read conventional wisdom's memo.

As the Eastern Conference Finals unfolded, New Jersey matched New York shift for shift and seemed to have them on the ropes after winning Game Five and seizing a 3-2 series lead. Their calling cards were lockdown defense, opportunistic offense, and a rookie goaltender who proved to be tough as nails. I remember watching the series and thinking who is this kid named Martin Brodeur and why does he think he can stop destiny?

Game Six took place on the Devils' home ice, and while talking to reporters on the eve of that contest, Mark Messier said: "We're going to go in and win Game Six" -- so when game day dawned, newspapers across the continent were spangled with headlines saying he had guaranteed victory a la Joe Namath.

When the third period arrived, Messier completed his lion-in-winter maneuver by scoring a natural hat trick to erase a one-goal deficit and push the series to a seventh game. The first two goals of the hat trick came off of assists from Alexei Kovalev, who had been moved to Messier's line that very day, for the specific purpose of adding speed and opening up the ice. It was a superb coaching decision that Mike Keenan haters have spent the last 20 years choosing to ignore.

Incredibly, Game Seven proved to be even more epic. Midway through the second period, Brian Leetch juked past Billy Guerin and beat Brodeur on a breakaway goal to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead, which for a long time looked like it would hold up. However, the Devils peppered Richter with three shots in a twelve-second span in the final half-minute. He stopped the first two shots but could not stop the third, which occurred when Valeri Zelepukin got his own rebound and poked it into the net with 7.7 seconds remaining. Just like that, Madison Square Garden went from ear-splitting loud to pin-drop quiet.

As the first overtime came and went, the teams kept attacking and the goalies kept playing the role of brick walls. 4:24 into the second overtime, Stephane Matteau etched himself an eternal place in Rangers lore by outracing Scott Niedermeyer to the puck, wheeling around the back of the net, and scoring the winning goal by banking his shot off of Brodeur's stick.

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Historically speaking, that NY-NJ series proved to be one helluva stepping stone.

East of the Hudson, the Rangers moved on to win the Stanley Cup and exorcise 54 years' worth of ghosts. With Richter's goaltending reputation boosted, he was picked for the U.S. World Cup team two years later and led it to a hallmark championship over Canada.

West of the Hudson, the Devils came back to win it all the following year when they "shocked" the gullible public by sweeping Detroit in the SCF -- thus beginning a long run of success during which they won the Cup three times in nine years and regularly went deep in the playoffs. Brodeur is now known as one of the greatest goaltenders in history, with a haul that includes three Cups, four Vezinas, and a 2002 Olympic gold medal that ended Canada's 50-year drought. He was still starting games in NJ this very year.

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Fast forward to 2002 and it was the Western Conference Finals, between the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings, that made hockey history in much the same way the Beatles and Stones made music history. And how could those teams not make history when you look at their torrent of talent?

In net you had Dominik Hasek and Patrick Roy...At center, Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman...On the blue line, Niklas Lidstrom and Rob Blake...Plus, you had scoring machines like Brett Hull, Sergei Fedorov, and Peter Forsberg...And then there was Chris Drury, one of the best clutch-time performers you'll ever see, playing on the third line of all places.

The teams were bitter rivals who had despised each other since Claude Lemieux drove Kris Draper's head into the boards in 1996. Over the six preceding seasons the Stanley Cup had gone to each of them twice, and Colorado was that year's defending champ -- so their 2002 clash was not "only" for the right to play for the Cup but for a chance to achieve dynasty status.

The tilt was played at such a high level -- three of its games went to OT -- that ESPN's John Buccigross was inspired to pen this column likening the feeling you got watching it to the feeling you got the first time you listened to The Joshua Tree. That column remains one of the finest pieces of writing I have ever read about any topic.

Bucci got his wish because the series went to Game Seven in Detroit. It was in that setting that Dominik Hasek blanked the Avs to become the first goaltender with five shutouts in a single postseason. More remarkable, however, was what happened at the other end of the ice: the Red Wings blew the roof off of Joe Louis Arena by scoring on their first two shots against Patrick Roy and adding two more goals before the game was 13 minutes old.

Comparatively speaking, the Stanley Cup Finals (which the Red Wings won in five games against the Carolina Hurricanes) were dull and anti-climatic despite having several good story lines.

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Which brings me back to that Game Two between Chicago and LA ten nights ago.

These teams have won the last two Stanley Cups; Chicago has won two of the last four; and LA is appearing in the Western Conference Finals for the third consecutive year.

The Blackhawks have Jonathan Toews, who might be the best all-around player in the game; and Patrick Kane, who might be the game's most exciting player to watch, and who is as clutch as he is streaky.

The Kings have Anze Kopitar, who is right there with Toews in the "might be the best all-around player" category; and Jonathan Quick, who is on the verge of passing Mike Richter for the "best-ever American goalie" title.

Chicago's Duncan Keith and LA's Drew Doughty are arguably the two best defensemen on the planet. Keith is 30 and still in his prime, while Doughty is 24 and might have yet to reach his prime.

In short, these teams are meant for the postseason, and when the series started I thought to myself: This has to go seven. But nearly two-thirds of the way through Game Two, the Blackhawks had spent the series soundly outplaying the team from SoCal and it looked like they were going to go ahead two-games-to-none. I was happy because I'm pulling for them (for no reason other than I've been to both cities and prefer the one by the lake to the one by the ocean) but I was disappointed because I wanted to see another classic conference final unfold.

Then it happened.

The Blackwaks were up 2-0 with 1:46 remaining in the second period when the Kings scored a semi-fluky goal to pull within one.

Then, 1:36 into the third, Jeff Carter redirected a Drew Doughty slap shot into the net to tie it.

Then it was Katie bar the door. Later, when everyone thought the puck had gone out of play, Tanner Pearson realized it had merely gone really high; and after it landed on the ice behind the goal line, he shoveled it in front to Tyler Toffoli, who capitalized by snapping it into the net.

Before you knew it the Kings had scored six goals and Carter had a hat trick and the series was tied a game apiece.

And that was when I re-convinced myself that it must go seven.

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Game Seven will occur on Sunday night.

Though there was a re-emergence of doubt when the Kings won both games on home ice to take a 3-1 series lead, the Blackhawks punched back by winning Game Five in overtime after some wild swings in momentum. Since my own teeth are growing long, I enjoyed watching the overtime winner be scored by Michal Handzuz, a graybeard from Slovakia who is playing his 17th season in the NHL.

And streaky-and-clutch to the end, Patrick Kane ended his goal drought by scoring twice in Game Six, including the game-winner with 3:45 remaining, to defeat LA and force Game Seven -- after he had already started to rise like a Phoenix with three assists in Game Five.

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Whoever wins Sunday night's Game Seven will be the team that is expected to drink champagne from the hallowed goblet in a couple weeks.

But their road will not be easy and it will be far from guaranteed, for they must get past a New York Rangers team that features Henrik Lundqvist, the steadiest goalie still playing...And they must get past trade-deadline acquisition Martin St. Louis, who has championship experience from his tenure with my Tampa Bay Lightning and adds a human interest element from having lost his mother to a heart attack days before Mother's Day...And they must get past Dominic Moore, another former Lightning player who adds a human interest element, having sat out all of last season after losing his wife to cancer. Moore usually plays on the fourth line, but has a history of making key series-defining plays from that position; it was he who scored the series-winning goal in NY's 1-0 victory over Montreal on Thursday night.

The Stanley Cup is the goal, but the conference finals is often where it's at.

And how can a person not love this sport?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article John!