Sunday, May 29, 2016

Three Rounds In

Now that the conference champions are known, here are some of my brain droppings about the Stanley Cup Finals that lie ahead.

Actually, the first two brain droppings are not, technically speaking, even about hockey, but when two teams square off for a championship it makes sense to say some things about where they come from. In this case, both cities are very underappreciated slices of America's great big apple pie.

San Jose
Ask people to name cities in California and many names will roll off their tongues: LA, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, maybe Oakland, plus small but famous municipalities like Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Berekely, Napa, and Palo Alto.

For some reason San Jose almost never gets mentioned. Despite being the largest city in the San Francisco Bay Area and tenth most populous in the whole country. Despite the fact that it has lots of colorful Victorian architecture, especially when it comes to Queen Anne rowhouses.

San Jose's topography ranges from 13 feet below sea level to more than 2,000 feet above, for it sits on the shore of San Francisco Bay while stretching out and up into the mountains, framed by the Santa Cruz and Diablo ranges and even bisected by the former. As the epicenter of what is colloquially known as Silicon Valley, it has an especially prosperous economy that counts eBay, IBM, and Adobe among its top employers.

Basically, San Jose is San Francisco minus the endemic panhandling and homelessness -- which is a damn good thing to be. And its hockey fans are a loyal and passionate bunch that has resolutely supported the Sharks through thick and thin ever since their first game in 1991.

Pittsburgh fans have a reputation for obnoxiousness. That is based, in no small part, on the Steelers' six Super Bowl rings and the Penguins' eternal reputation as a "pure" hockey team whose shit don't stink.

But if you ever spend time with fans from the Steel City, you will quickly realize that their reputation is unearned. They would rather imbibe an Iron City or Stoney's with you than talk shit to you, and their city is just as misunderstood as they are.

When a place is known for steel mills and its name begins with "pitt," there is a built-in PR problem from the beginning. It's hard to hear the word "Pittsburgh" and not think of pollution and grease... unless, that is, you have been there and seen it with your own eyes.

In reality, this city is filled with leafy neighborhoods and dormer-windowed homes... It is pleasantly hilly, backs up to the Allegheny Mountains, and is home to several elite universities... Right across from downtown, the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers converge at the base of Mount Washington and turn west to form the mighty Ohio River, hence the "three rivers" nickname... And although Pittsburgh is historically known as a steel town, its current economy is driven by high tech, robotics, and medicine, and counts Google as one of its major employers.

Why to cheer for the Sharks
Their "seasoned" players. Key contributors Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joel Ward, Paul Martin, and Joe Pavelski are all over 30, and only one of those five (Pavelski) is under the age of 35.

Dainius Zubras. At 37, he too is "seasoned." Arguably the best player ever from Lithuania, he is no longer logging enough minutes to be called a "key" contributor, but he is contributing and busting his hump in pursuit of his first ever Cup.

Their players deserve to win it all. They deserve to hoist the Cup in the faces of every person (I'm probably one of them) who has suggested in recent years that they just weren't strong-willed enough to win it all.

Their fans deserve it too, for the reason I mentioned above.

Why to cheer for the Pens
Several paragraphs above I mentioned their "eternal reputation as a 'pure' hockey team." I also talked about it here. The thing is, that reputation is legit. The Penguins don't stoop to gooning it up. They play it straight and aim to beat you on merit, not goonery.

Sidney Crosby is the best player of his generation but so far has only one Cup to his name. He deserves another to notch into his belt, especially since his first came in his personal "pre-concussion era."

Evgeni Malkin is one of the best Russian players of the last 20 years. For him to return from injury during the post-season and help guide the team to the championship would be a story worthy of his stature.

There might be some fan bases that are as loyal as Pittsburgh's, but there is no fan base more loyal. Pittsburgh's partisans will both embrace and appreciate a fourth Cup victory for their team.

Why not to cheer for the Sharks
Who wants to spend a whole other year listening to semi-literate blowhards talking like the Western Conference is so superior to the Eastern Conference, talking as if they are comparing a conference full of teams that are on par with the 1970's Habs to a conference which might as well be the ECHL? Not me.

Why not to cheer for the Pens
Kris Letang. Athough the Pens as a team play about the cleanest brand of hockey out there, Letang himself is a cheap-shotting, dive-taking piece of shit who disgraces the game.

San Jose human interest story
Joel Ward's regular season performances have always been above average, but his playoff performances have always been stellar, as his post-season numbers (per game) tend to be almost 50% better than his regular season numbers. He is one of the NHL's best clutch players this decade, and it counts that he holds that title while being black. For him to get his name engraved on the Cup would be a cake-topping cherry  that he richly deserves.

Pittsburgh human interest story
Matt Murray. For a 21-year-old rookie goalie to come off the bench late in the season when the starter goes down -- and proceed to author a down-the-stretch surge up the standings followed by a playoff march to the Promised Land -- would be worth telling for years. And make no mistake, Murray has not just been along for the ride, for he has been outstanding during the playoffs with a .924 save percentage and 2.21 goals-against average.

Bring it on...

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