Monday, April 10, 2017

The Time Is Here

The most wonderful time of the sporting year is upon us, by which I mean the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin Wednesday night.

And it is still the most wonderful time of the sporting year even though my Tampa Bay Lightning finished just outside the money this time around, getting eliminated on the season's final day despite winning that night and finishing on a prolonged hot streak.

Anyway, here are some thoughts before the faceoffs commence:

The Return
One year ago everyone was talking about all seven Canadian franchises missing the playoffs, and north of the border they were gnashing their teeth. Some wondered in hushed (and not so hushed) tones what that might mean. But most of us knew it meant nothing, and predictably, the Canadian drought has now vanished as quickly as it appeared, for that is what mirages do.

This time around, five of Canada's seven franchises are in the postseason and three of them -- Edmonton, Calgary, and Toronto -- are led by so many young stars that it's not crazy to ask if we are approaching a time when it will become rare for a U.S. franchise to hoist the Cup.

Out West, the Oilers and Flames are back in the postseason and champing at the bit. In Edmonton, second-year centerman Connor McDavid led the league in assists (70) and points (100) and many people believe he has already surpassed Sidney Crosby to become the league's biggest star. In Calgary, Johnny Gaudreau lit it up through the second half of the season as he and Sean Monahan regained their claim to being the best 1-2 punch playing on a single line anywhere in the world. With mojo like this, the Battle of Alberta is back on and it looks like it will remain on for a long time.

But of course, what has given the Toronto Disinformation Ministry Canadian media its biggest hard-on since the 2002 Olympics is the Maple Leafs' return to the postseason after having hit what appeared to be rock bottom just 12 to 24 months ago -- and they did it with rookie phenom Auston Matthews finishing tied for second in the NHL in goals (40) while fellow rookie Mitch Marner set the franchise rookie record for assists (42).

In terms of winning it all, the present will probably belong to an American franchise, and I have solid reasons to believe that the Lightning have what it takes to drink from the silver chalice at some point over the next few years... but be that as it may, the future looks extremely bright above the 49th parallel, and I do expect to see a couple franchises from up there make good runs this postseason.

The Exit
While postseason prospects are looking up throughout Canada, they are extinguished for the first time in more than a quarter century on the U.S. side of the Detroit River. The Red Wings had appeared in every postseason since 1991 -- the longest streak in all professional sports on this continent -- until their 4-1 loss to Carolina on March 28th eliminated them from this year's dance.

I would be lying if I said I'm weeping over this turn of events. The Lightning have faced the Wings (and defeated them!) in two consecutive postseasons, so I've acquired a distaste for them, especially when it comes to cheap goon Justin Abdelkader and headhunter Niklas Kronwall. But a big part of me will miss seeing Al Sobotka pick up octopi thrown on the ice, and I must admit it's a shame that Joe Louis Arena won't play host to any playoff hockey in its final year.

It is also a shame that the Wings won't play any playoff games in the year that marks the 20th anniversary of the first Cup in their modern dynasty.

On second thought, I will kind of miss seeing those punks. It'll seem strange without them.

Who to root for
Pittsburgh. My respect for the Penguins, and for the city and its hockey history, was already spelled out in this post last June. Crosby's place in history is already cemented, but a third Cup would make the cement even deeper and he deserves very deep cement. Plus, I would like to see Phil Kessel get his named engraved again and this time walk away with the Conn Smythe.

NY Rangers. I understand why so many people can't stomach the thought of Manhattan's blue bloods winning it all, but I have two words for you: Henrik Lundqvist. He is the best netminder of his generation, the best ever from the great hockey nation of Sweden, and a genuine class act. He deserves a championship and at 35 his days are numbered.

Minnesota. The North Star State has the richest and longest hockey tradition of any state in this country (sorry Massachusetts) so its denizens should be able to experience a Cup win before they die. Plus, I like how the Wild's logo incorporates a North Woods motif inside a silhouette of a bear's head. It's cool!

Calgary. Actually, it's good to cheer for either of the Alberta teams, Edmonton or Calgary. They are both "small markets" and thus underdogs and thus cheering for them is the All-American thing to do even though they're not American franchises. After all, this is hockey, which is Canada's game, and it's not the Olympics.

But while it's good to cheer for either, I have a softer spot for the Flames than I do for the Oilers. Don't ask me why because I can't rationalize it. It seems like I  should consider them a bit of a rival since they're who the Bolts beat for the Cup in 2004, but instead they're one of those teams I generally root for and despise them only when they go against my own.

Who not to root for
Toronto. I can't, just can't, because their media machine is insufferable and their fans act stuck-up and entitled despite the fact that their God's-gift-to-hockey franchise hasn't won the Cup in 50 years. (Though I wouldn't mind them having a little success just to see if those fans will finally stop sneering at Americans, seeing as how Matthews is from Arizona and Jake Gardiner from Minnesota and Brian Boyle from Massachusetts.)

Montreal. Watching them lose is just too fun. And who could possibly want to hear Ole, Ole, Ole played past the first round? Not I.

Boston. They already won one in 2011 and that's enough for this generation of Bruins fans. Now, I must admit that I pulled for the Bruins in 2011 and for the Patriots over the Falcons in this year's Super Bowl, but nobody wants to watch another Boston team win another world title after all the success they've experienced for the last 16 years.

Washington. Just because.

Philadelphia. The Flyers aren't even in the playoffs, but I'm putting them on this list just the same. Hatin' on Philly Fan ain't ever unjustified.

And with that...
I will sign off for now. Tune in over the next two months and enjoy the best that sports have to offer!

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