In observing the Stanley Cup Finals from Europe, a couple of thoughts sprang to mind:
1. If hockey were as popular in America as soccer is in Europe, it would be, like, the most popular thing ever.
2. Gee, games sure are on pretty late over there.
Okay, so I didn't watch a single game of the Oilers-Hurricanes series. But judging from the television ratings, neither did anybody else. And the reality is I didn't have to, because the story of this series was one that has been repeated countless times in NHL history. I speak, of course, of the 'hot goalie' phenomenon — you know, how there's always one guy each year who seems to carry his team on his back in their quest to be etched on Lord Stanley's Cup. Except that this time there was a twist; this year's guy — the Oilers' Dwayne Roloson — could only watch helplessly from the bench as his team succumbed to defeat.
Coming into the playoffs, all the buzz centered on the new kids in town — goalies like Bryzgalov, Huet, Mason, Toskala and Ward who were all seeing their first extended action as playoff starters. Meanwhile, much like the Oilers themselves, the veteran Roloson snuck under the radar to catch everyone by surprise.
The Oilers were the No. 8-seed in the Western Conference, a fact that belied the true level of talent on the team. One of the reasons for this was the late addition of Roloson, acquired in a March trade from Minnesota. Despite an initial shaky start with his new club, Roli the Goalie recovered and backstopped Edmonton's run to the playoffs in the dog-eat-dog West, its first round shocker over Hockeytown, and its subsequent series wins over San Jose and Anaheim.
No, Roloson didn't have the most breathtaking stats of the tournament, ranking sixth in GAA (2.33) and third in save percentage (.927). But Roloson displayed dependable veteran savvy throughout (such as his habit of shaking free his helmet to draw whistles when in trouble), and was unquestionably the most clutch goalie in the playoffs when he had to be. And before anyone protests too much, just ask Jonathan Cheechoo if 'clutch' playoff goaltending is a cliche.
In Game 3 of the Oilers' second-round series against the Sharks, Roloson came up with the defining save of Edmonton's season. Late in the second of three overtimes, Cheechoo appeared about to bury the game-winner that would have given the Sharks a 3-0 series lead, and surely an eventual berth in the Conference Finals. Instead, a down-but-not-out Roloson flashed his glove and snatched the net-bound puck, not unlike how a lizard might flick its tongue to snag an unsuspecting insect for brunch. The Oilers, of course, went on to win that game and the series, surging with four straight Shark-punishings. Cheechoo, the league's goal-scoring champ, was sent home to polish his Rocket Richard Trophy.
Ah, but live by the hot goalie, die by the hot goalie. Late in a tied Game 1 against Carolina, Roloson was knocked out with a knee injury after a collision in the crease. And with him went Edmonton's chances of a sixth Stanley Cup (rest easy Wayne, your pristine legacy is still intact — oh, wait...)
This is not to say that without Roloson, the Oilers were a dog-meat team. Edmonton's surprising run was built around a gritty, punishing team attack that capitalized on opponents' mistakes and frustrated teams with superior offensive skill. In fact, the playoffs' biggest warrior was Chris Pronger, who averaged over 30 minutes of ice time and probably deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy had the Oilers prevailed.
But so often in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it seems that the team with the hot goalie carries with it a sense of invincibility, a belief that its in-pipe stalwart will carry the day come hell or high water. When he is toppled by an injury in the first game of the championship series ('inopportune' is the understatement we're looking for), it's a gut-punch that almost no team would recover from. Native Canadian Alanis Morissette might term it 'ironic,' but in reality it's just really shitty luck.
This also shouldn't be considered an indictment of replacement Jussi Markkanen, who entered the fray stone-cold after spectating for the entire playoffs. In fact, after surrendering five goals in Game 2, he was very solid. But by then it was too late. The Oilers displayed admirable resilience in fighting back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits to force Game 7, but the 'Canes were finally able to seal the deal (even though they took their time in doing so).
It's hard not to feel sorry for Roloson, who after nine seasons knows how scarce opportunities to play in the Finals are. At minimum, he certainly deserved to play out the rest of his team's unlikely run — win or lose. Instead, the Rexall Crazies have finally been silenced, and the Oilers are showing up for their tee times wondering what might have been had their guy still been around to carry them.
Of course, analyzing the Finals while neglecting to credit the team that actually won — the Carolina Hurricanes, for those yet unaware — would be wrong. And I would give them credit too, if I knew anything about them beyond the fact that they're a team that plays hockey in North Carolina. But perhaps I'd know more about them if the New NHL hadn't decreed that teams from the East and West should only meet once every Plutonian orbit (247.9 Earth-years and yes, an exaggeration).
No, Carolina-Edmonton wasn't the matchup that NHL execs dreamed about for the triumphant return of the Stanley Cup Finals after The Unpleasantness. As a ratings-grabber, this series figured from the start to be more "Bonds on Bonds" than "Who Shot J.R.?" But perhaps this pairing was perfectly fitting for a league that has committed itself to the success of small-market teams. In the old NHL, these teams might have been candidates for contraction. In the new NHL, they're conference champions. Hello, parity...
Congratulations are in order not only for richly-deserving Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton, but also for the writers who voted for him. It would have been very easy to fall trap to the East Coast Media Machine (the bane of sports fans west of the Mississippi since, well, always) and give the award to the Jaromir Jagr. Jagr was certainly a worthy candidate, arriving in the Big Apple to turn the Rangers into a playoff team after a dismal 13th-place conference finish in 2003-04. But what Thornton did for the Sharks after his November 30 acquisition speaks for itself. Before Joe: 8-12-4, including a 10-game winless streak. With Joe: 36-15-7. It's not often that an in-season trade has such an obvious impact on a team. Then again, it's not often that a player of Thornton's ability is traded. Thanks, Boston.
Damn, the NHL sure doesn't waste any time does it? It's less than a week after the Finals, and already it's Draft time. I sure hope everybody submitted their mock drafts on time. I'm just kidding — of course you did.