Why the Stanley Cup Playoffs are Superior
Exactly two months after the post-season began, the Chicago Blackhawks put an end to it with a 2-0 victory last night at the United Center. The long, arduous journey to celebrate with the most prestigious trophy (weather not withstanding) had reached its end and now the off-season is basically upon us, with the draft a mere 10 days away. But before we witness the inevitable dismantling of depth for the champs, let’s first review what we saw these last two months.
Naturally, I’m going to talk a little about goaltending. A lot of new faces were between the pipes this spring with teams like LA, Boston and San Jose missing out on the playoffs. Experience was at a premium, particularly in the Western Conference. Would you believe that Pekka Rinne was the most experienced playoff goalie in the conference outside of Corey Crawford? The same Crawford that gave up 9 goals in 4 periods against Nashville to start the post-season. After Chicago dispatched a Weber-less Nashville team with a fluky performance by playoff newbie Scott Darling, they faced Devan Dubnyk, Frederik Andersen, and Ben Bishop…who had combined for 7 playoff appearances before this season. Bishop showed he was up to the task by out-dueling the likely Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price, and former winner Henrik Lundqvist. Bishop also showed his toughness as it was revealed he played games 3, 5 and 6 of the Stanley Cup Final with a torn groin. A torn groin…. For a goaltender….Let that sink in.
Ah…. Injuries revealed after a team is eliminated. A tradition almost as old as the handshake line. Teams are more secretive than Tom Brady and his text messages. We often wonder what is wrong with a player when his performance declines drastically. In Bishop’s case, he was somehow able to overcome it, often making fans cringe as he struggled to get up at times. So many put their body on the line and only now are we aware of what was wrong. Tyler Johnson had been playing with a broken wrist, which explains why he was basically invisible during the Final after leading the league in playoff scoring. Mats Zuccarello of the Rangers took a slap shot to the head, literally causing him to lose his speech for a couple days, was skating during optional morning practices within 2 weeks. As is often the case, the team that is somehow able to avoid injuries throughout, emerges victorious. The only injury Chicago suffered was to Michael Roszival, a bottom pair defenseman who suffered a broken ankle against Minnesota. The point is, there’s no end to what players will put their bodies through in order to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.
“We want the Cup” is often echoed through most arenas when they drop the puck to start the two-month long second season. No sport has more passionate fans than the NHL. The raucous atmosphere of home games can sometimes will a team to victory. Despite the fact that Chicago has had fans for all of… I dunno… 7 years… they’re a loud bunch. Obnoxious…..but certainly loud. Maybe this is sour grapes by a Preds fan, but there’s truth to it. Dustin Byfuglien, now of the Winnipeg Jets, won a Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010. He was quoted as recently as 2009 saying that by and large, people in town had no idea who he was, and we’re talking about one of their best players at the time. Some make the excuse that ownership blacking out games alienated the fans so it was hard to build a base. Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t Chicago been around for 90 years? Shouldn’t you already have a diehard fan base with a city of nearly 3 million? Could it be the reason they weren’t showing up is that they went through a SEVENTY-ONE year stretch with ONE Cup to show for it? “But how many Cups do you have?” is the go-to rebuttal by them. There’s little doubt as to why Hawks fans are the consensus most hated fans in the league. They will brag and brag…but hey…they now have the 2nd FEWEST Cups of any Original Six team. Congratulations. They could have the nicest guys in the world playing for them and I wouldn’t cheer for them because their fans feel entitled now.
Speaking of nice guys… I must say it was good to watch the celebration (for a couple minutes) to see former Preds’ captain Kimmo Timonen retire on top. The guy hadn’t played all season for the Flyers while dealing with blood clots, he finally starts skating in practice, and then gets dealt to Chicago for a chance to win. Classy move by Philly(?) to appease him and also kudos to GM Ron Hextall for fleecing Chicago, getting two 2nd round draft picks in the deal. Furthermore, is there another sport in which fans would cheer for a former player to win? I can assure you no Knicks fan is clamoring for JR Smith and Iman Shumpert to win a title for Cleveland.
Which brings me to my next point… hockey players truly are instilled with a TEAM-first mentality. You will never hear a player say they’re confident because they’re ‘the best player in the world’, i.e. LeBron James. It becomes very easy for players to be likable when they’re humble, as opposed to pompous types who want the spotlight on themselves. The response from a hockey player to what James said would be ‘I’m confident because WE stick together as a team and WE have overcome this before.” It doesn’t make headlines, but they know they’re only as good as what they do collectively as a unit.
Regardless of my hatred for Chicago, they find ways to win and ultimately that’s what they did. The passion, both on the ice and amongst us fans. The heart of players willing to do unimaginable harm to their bodies to win a 35-lb trophy they don’t keep. The camaraderie of a locker room to come together with machine-like precision. A team…. Forever being immortalized by having its members etched into the bottom ring of the Stanley Cup. That’s what this is all about when it’s all said and done.