Every spring, hockey fans look forward to the most exciting and challenging tournament in all of American sports: the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Each season gives us its share of unforgettable games and moments, though admittedly some years are more lackluster than others.
Since becoming a hockey fan 20 long years ago, the postseason that stood out to me as the most exciting was 1994. True, this is in no small part because I bleed Ranger blue. But objectively, there was plenty for all fans to root for: seven series that went the distance, including the Finals, thrilling runs by underdogs like the Canucks and Sharks and a team overcoming its snakebitten past to win its first Cup in more than half a century.
This spring, we’ve been treated to a postseason that parallels the ’94 playoffs on a number of levels. The 2011 chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup has certainly lived up to the standards set 17 years ago, and has, in fact, exceeded them.
Nashville enjoyed a spike in attendance this season, averaging nearly 1,200 more fans per game than in 2009-10. The atmosphere at Bridgestone Arena during the playoffs was electric, as Barry Trotz and company finally advanced to the second round for the first time in franchise history.
The team received a deserved round of applause from the home crowd after being eliminated by Vancouver after an exciting six-game series.
With turmoil and uncertainty surrounding teams like the Thrashers and Phoenix Coyotes, Nashville’s story is one of hope that hockey can survive and even thrive in non-traditional markets. Less than five years after the team was nearly relocated to Hamilton, Ontario, the Predators are on the map in Music City.
Although the balance of power has shifted over the years, when you mention hockey to the casual fan, one of these teams typically comes to mind.
This season, five of the Original Six teams qualified for the playoffs, and all but the Rangers represented themselves well. The Canadiens, Blackhawks and Red Wings were all eliminated in Game 7, and the Bruins are in the Finals.
With the Maple Leafs getting closer to becoming a playoff contender, it appears the league’s old order will be upholding the tradition for years to come.
Maybe it’s more Rangers bias on my part, but I for one am tired of having these two jammed down our throats.
Yes, they are absolutely two of the best players in the game, if not the best two, but the league is stacked with stars who don’t get nearly the same level of attention.
Guys like the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Steven Stamkos, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have all had a chance to shine this postseason (even if Lucic hasn't yet exactly). We’ve also seen outstanding goaltending from netminders like Tim Thomas, Roberto Luongo and Pekka Rinne.
Sid the Kid will be back next year, and we all wish him a speedy and full recovery. Meanwhile, the only “Ovechtrick” we’ve seen in the playoffs is the annual Capitals’ Disappearing Act.
This year’s final four featured teams that all posted more than 100 points and at least 45 wins during the regular season.
While everyone enjoys a good Cinderella story and it’s always fun to root for the underdog, there’s nothing like a clash of league powerhouses at this stage of the game. It’s what made the Colorado-Detroit encounters of the late-90’s so memorable. Those teams weren’t sneaking up on anybody, and you knew from the start of training camp that one would have to go through the other to hoist the Cup.
Regardless of the outcome, we’ll be treated to a deserving champion this year. Both the Canucks and Bruins have been top flight teams for the past several seasons. Now, one of them will finally get the payoff.
More on that later.
NHL fans are the most passionate in sports, and nowhere has that been more evident this season than in Vancouver. When watching games from Rogers Arena this postseason, you can feel the sense of destiny and 40 years of anguish permeating through the screen at the same time.
Canucks fans seem to just know that this is their year, and yet there’s the twinge of fear that it may not be. The tension has made for one of the most thrilling settings of this year’s playoffs.
In addition to the fans, the team on the ice is one stockpiled with dynamic talent. Whether it’s the vibrant and enthralling play of Kesler and the Sedins, the heroics of Alex Burrows and Kevin Bieksa, or the incomparable goaltending of Luongo, the Canucks are a showcase of the very best the NHL has to offer.
The Philadelphia Flyers turned Red Sox magic against Beantown last season.
Philly overcame a 3-0 series deficit to end the Bruins’ Stanley Cup dreams in stunning fashion. It was the first time an American sports franchise had pulled off such a miracle since the 2004 Sawx, and the first time an NHL team had accomplished the feat since 1975.
This season, the teams met once again in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Once again, Boston won the first three games of the series. Determined to exorcise the demons of 2010, the B’s put forth an inspired effort in Game 4, sweeping out the Flyers with a 5-1 victory.
Players readily admitted that the collapse of a season ago had been hanging over the team. The impact of the win on the team’s psyche would help build significant momentum on the Bruins’ run to the Prince of Wales Trophy.
But there was still one foe from 2010 that needed to be vanquished.
Simon Gagne became the most hated man in Boston in 2010 when he played the role of catalyst in leading the Flyers to that remarkable comeback.
Returning from injury for Game 4, Gagne netted the game-winner in overtime, tallied two more in Game 5, then lit the lamp with the game and series-winner in Game 7.
As luck would have it, Boston matched up against Gagne’s new team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals. The teams finished with identical records during the regular season, and both had endured a seven-game first round series before sweeping in the semifinals.
The even matchup would live up to its billing in a hard-nosed, blue collar series, encapsulated by a 1-0 Game 7 and Steven Stamkos’ hard nose.
Tim Thomas stopped all 24 shots he faced, and Nathan Horton scored another clutch goal for the Bruins at 12:33 of the third period to propel Boston into the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1990.
Heading into this postseason, only six teams in NHL history (including the 2009-10 Flyers) had overcome a 3-0 series hole to force a seventh game. In 2011, it happened not once, but twice.
This year’s Cup favorite was nearly upended by last year’s champion when the Chicago Blackhawks rallied for three straight wins after falling behind the Canucks 3-0. Game 7 was a nail-biter, with Alex Burrows burying the clincher for Vancouver in OT.
In the Western Conference semifinals, the San Jose Sharks felt like the ones being circled in the water by a familiar nemesis.
After grabbing a three game cushion against Detroit, the Red Wings answered to force a winner-take-all matchup in Northern California.
A back-and-forth game saw the Sharks survive and advance to the Conference Finals.
Not only is it exciting to watch these comebacks unfold, it leads to a better overall series. Namely…
Out of the 14 best-of-seven series that have been contested so far, six have gone the distance. That’s the most at this point since…you guessed it, 1994.
Not only have there been a ton of Game 7’s, they’ve almost all been fantastic games. Five of the six contests were decided by one goal, with two overtime finishes.
Both of this year’s finalists have endured at least one grueling series on their march to the last round. In the Bruins’ case, they’ve had to win two Game 7’s just to reach the Finals.
There are few things in sports more exciting than a seventh game, particularly in hockey. One of the few things that is more exciting is…
Or sudden life to the team that scores. In an instant, a game can go from stalemate to celebration. Few sights are more electrifying than watching fans rise with a monstrous roar as they realize the puck has gone in the net.
Hockey fans have been treated to a whopping 20 games this spring that have required at least one extra period to determine a winner. Only two of the 14 series played thus far have ended without at least one game going into overtime. We’ll forgive Boston and Tampa Bay for settling all seven of their games in regulation.
At the end of the first round, there were nine consecutive nights from April 19-27 with at least one overtime contest. A string of six such nights in the second round meant that on 15 out of 16 days, there was free hockey to be found somewhere in the NHL universe.
And that ain’t bad.
As Sam Rosen said in 1994 when the Rangers won it all, “The waiting is over!”
Indeed, the waiting will be over for one team at the end of this year’s Stanley Cup Finals…but which one?
Vancouver has been to the Finals twice before, but has never hoisted the Cup in 40 seasons of existence.
Boston, the oldest United States-based team in the NHL, has won the trophy five times, but has gone without since 1972.
As I mentioned earlier in this list, whichever team emerges victorious after this year’s championship round will truly be a deserving and appreciative recipient of the most coveted prize in North American sports.
If these Finals are as good as the playoffs that preceded it, we should be in for an unforgettable finish to the best postseason we’ve ever seen.
Almost as enjoyable as the games themselves have been the NHL’s “History Will Be Made” promos. The perfect blend of history, nostalgia and majesty helps add to the special feel of the playoff coverage.
The league is right on the money with the tone of the ads this year, as history will indeed be made by either the Canucks or the Bruins.
Which team will it be? Leave a comment with your prediction and what has been your favorite part of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Until next time, I leave you with my favorite “History Will Be Made” ad from this year’s crop.