Sixteen different teams make the NHL playoffs, leading to hundreds of possibilities as to which two teams could potentially face off in the Stanley Cup Finals.
If the NHL had a choice and could hand select two of these 16 teams to play each other; with marketing, hype, and ratings in mind, who would Bettman and Co. likely select?
The dream for the NHL, of course, would be to see the Penguins play the Capitals for the Stanley Cup. Crosby against Ovechkin in the Finals? The NHL would die for such a ratings boon. Yet these two franchises exist in the same Conference. So no Cup Finals between these two is even possible.
Yet, as fate would have it, the two clubs managed to still meet earlier in the playoff schedule. Sparks flew. Goals were scored by the fistful. ESPN, which had long ago dumped the NHL in favor of the NBA, took time out from their constant hype of Kobe vs. LeBron to cover this highly charged battle of the NHL's top two young stars.
Luckily for the NHL, this wild series forced itself to a pivotal Game Seven. Ratings and hype flooded into the league. While Game Seven was almost over before it got its legs under itself, the NHL had profited immensely on many levels from this series.
With the Bruins uncharacteristically dropping home games to the Hurricanes, costing them a shot at advancing to a Cup Finals for the first time in decades, the stage was set for the Penguins and NHL poster boy Sidney Crosby to play for the Cup.
Again, to the NHL's benefit, those were the two exact teams facing off for a chance at playing in the Finals. Of course, on paper, the 'Hawks had no chance of beating the Wings, and that's the way the series ultimately played out. Yet for the beleaguered hockey city of Chicago, the 'Hawks were back on the map.
The Red Wings, the NHL's version of the Yankees/Patriots/Lakers, are a clear dynasty. Even if they lack any major nationally-known stars, the Wings by stature alone, bring interest to the table.
So here the NHL stands, on the brink of playing its Super Bowl, and perhaps the two teams the league would hand select to play each other—the Red Wings (the dynasty) and the Penguins (the upstarts, with the poster boy attached)—are indeed matching up.
Could the Gary Bettman who cut his teeth in the NBA, be taking a page out of the NBA's playbook? Could this "dream" matchup really be just a fortunate turn of events for the NHL? Out of all the potentials and possibles, did these two teams really just have what it took to avoid the pitfalls and landmines that eliminated all of their rivals to pursuit of the Cup?
Or is something else afoot? Could this Stanley Cup Finals "dream" matchup have been manufactured by a league in need of a popularity boost? Or is it just a lucky break?