After all they put people through in the first four months of this season, does the NHL deserve to get this lucky? I mean, really, does it?
With the calendar about to turn to June on Saturday, the only way you could realistically get people to care about hockey in a lockout-shortened season is if, by some curious happenstance, you managed to get four major markets, plus a whole bunch of marquee players through to the final four.
And if by some further miracle, the teams left standing happened to be the last four Stanley Cup champions, well, that might be the only way it could get any better.
And yet, with the third round about to begin, that’s exactly what’s taken place. Over in the East, you have the 2009 champion Pittsburgh Penguins facing off against the 2011 champion Boston Bruins. In the West, you have the 2010 champion Chicago Blackhawks taking on the 2012 champions, the Los Angeles Kings.
Boston and Chicago have the added cachet of being Original Six teams, with loyal fans scattered around the hockey world. Pittsburgh has Sidney Crosby, the face of the league, which will come into greater focus, now that he’s been medically cleared to dispense with the mouth guard he’s worn for two rounds to protect his broken jaw. Los Angeles is the hard-working interloper, sort of a modern-day answer to the New York Islanders’ dynasty.
These are all pressure-tested teams; their collective rosters include 56 players who’ve have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup, 19 of them playing for Los Angeles, 18 for Boston.
But the most talked-about player might be the one searching for his first Stanley Cup, Jarome Iginla, the popular ex-Calgary Flames captain, who joined the Penguins at the trading deadline, eschewing the option of going to Boston because he wanted to play on the same team as Crosby, his fellow Canadian Olympian. In Calgary, almost from the moment Iginla left town, Flames fans jumped on the Penguins bandwagon, in the hopes that he would be rewarded with a championship after his long and loyal service in the Stampede City.
Along with Crosby, another iconic homegrown star, the Penguins have become the de facto home team for many Canadian hockey fans, once their home teams were eliminated. Iginla represents this year’s answer to Raymond Bourque, who had to go to the Colorado Avalanche to win the 2001 Stanley Cup after spending most of his Hall of Fame career with the Bruins. You’d think Boston fans might understand that, but you’d probably be wrong. Iginla, who has rarely been booed throughout his NHL career, will have to come to terms with the fact that he is the enemy in the Hub of Hockey, where they take their sports loyalties seriously.
But Iginla’s decision to play for Pittsburgh over Boston isn’t the only compelling tiff for TV networks to milk. There is also Jaromir Jagr, who was traded to the Bruins by Dallas after their pursuit of Iginla fell short. Jagr spurned the Penguins two summers ago to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers after he felt the team lowballed him in contract negotiations. There were hurt feelings all around then, and they were exacerbated during last year’s playoffs when the Flyers, with Jagr in the lineup, upset the Penguins in the opening round.
Stanley Cup champions over the past few seasons have been notorious victims of the one-and-done syndrome – Pittsburgh, Chicago and Boston were all eliminated in seven games in the opening rounds the year after they won.
The fact that Los Angeles escaped that fate is noteworthy on a couple of levels. The Kings had to start the playoffs on the road, where they have been an unmitigated disaster this season, but managed to win once in St. Louis in the opening round and that was enough to defeat the Blues in six games. Against the San Jose Sharks in the second round, it was the first series in NHL playoff history in which both the home team and the team that scored first won every game. L.A. has won 14 in a row at the Staples Center, and is 7-0 there in these playoffs, but the Kings will have to find a way to win at least once at the United Center in order to get back to the Stanley Cup final.
The greatest edge they may have is in goal, where Jonathan Quick is the only one of the four remaining starters to have backstopped his team to a Stanley Cup. As good as Quick was last year – good enough to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP – he has been even better this year. On the nights when the Kings have been just so-so, Quick has bailed them out. All the other goalies – Boston’s Tuukka Rask, Pittsburgh’s Tomas Vokoun, Chicago’s Corey Crawford – have had their share of good moments this spring too, but where you can see vulnerabilities in their respective games, you can see nothing like that in the way Quick is playing.
Not everyone has forgotten the lockout – the fact that they’re into June already and just starting the third round is a daily reminder. It was four months of apocalyptic bebop, in which billionaire owners fought millionaire players to divide the spoils of a $3.3-billion industry. For the longest time, the thing they did best was alienate their client base – from sponsors and television partners to the paying public on both sides of the border.
When it ended in mid-January, the two sides had a lot of apologizing to do – and after all that vitriol and rhetoric, mostly promised to do their talking on the ice. If commissioner Gary Bettman had gone to bed and wished upon a star every night, it couldn’t have had his dreams realized any better than this. They needed to create some fresh goodwill with their television partners, especially the NBC Sports Network, which they left high and dry by cancelling all those games in the first four months of the season.
With the usual excitement in the first round, two Original Six matchups in the second round, two compelling seven-game series that went down to the wire in the West, they’ve managed to do that. And at a point where interest usually falls off a cliff until the final, there’s enough to like about these last two matchups that interest will likely stay pretty high.
Yes, they’ve been lucky. Some might even argue, a little too lucky for their own good.