Stanley Cup Finals 2011: 7 Stanley Cup Rivalries the NHL Hopes Will Come
Bettman and Co. lucked out when the Eastern Conference sent an Original Six team (and one of the biggest television markets in the United States) to this year's Finals. Likewise, Vancouver drew the interest of all of Canada, whether good or bad.
However, it appeared that was all the league was getting. Boston and Vancouver couldn't be further apart, squaring off only once or twice during the regular season and separated by about as long a distance as one could imagine.
On paper, this matchup had all the rivalry potential of a series between the Johnstown Chiefs and your D-League dek hockey club.
Wrong. The series went the distance and Boston walked away with its first title in decades. Tim Thomas extended his regular-season dominance to turn in a Conn Smythe-worthy performance, and Mark Recchi retired a champion.
Vancouver, you may have heard, burned.
Game 7 drew one of the highest Finals ratings in league history. Folks took notice of this series—and perhaps more importantly, are now taking notice of the NHL as a league.
With Boston's victory, the NHL can now boast four consecutive years of ideal championship matchups. Since 2008, an Original Six team has appeared in each Final, winning three. Pittsburgh won in 2009, a franchise that was part of the league's first expansion in 1967.
The Stanley Cup itself is steeped in tradition and for four straight years its winners have themselves had rich histories. After seeing a streak of winners from non-traditional markets through the middle of the decade, hockey's old guard has taken the lead again.
For Bettman and the league, that means spikes of popularity in populous, hockey-rich markets.
Will that good luck continue? Fans and league executives can hope. Here are seven championship matches to hope for in the coming seasons.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Skill against skill, speed against speed, stars against stars.
Pittsburgh and Chicago are the last two winners of the Stanley Cup and are two teams cut from the same post-lockout cloth. Maligned for years leading into the work stoppage, both clubs compiled talent through the draft, built teams around their stars and ended with a championship.
Given that both clubs' captains are 23 or younger, their championship windows appear to be wide open for the foreseeable future.
Sidney Crosby and Jonathon Toews broke tradition when they were named captains of their respective clubs at very young ages, and each has rewarded his management by becoming one of the game's finest leaders.
Barring a major realignment of the conferences, Crosby versus Toews is the best battle of stars the Stanley Cup can provide.
Those two would certainly headline the series, but there is no lack of secondary talent here, either: Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane, Jordan Staal and Patrick Sharp, Kris Letang and Duncan Keith, Marc-Andre Fleury and Corey Crawford...
Oh, and Penguins fans get to root against that Hossa character again.
As for local appeal, Pittsburgh has become one of the best hockey markets in the States, and Hawks fans turn the United Center into one of the best playoff venues in the game. Crosby is the most likely name to be recognized by casual sports fans, something the league is well aware of.
Not that the series would only draw based on the names involved. There hasn't been a good deal of hate between the clubs, but each plays a fast brand of hockey that makes for good television. They seem well matched, too, as many of their most recent contests have been decided by one goal, usually in overtime.
Throw in a plus-sized television market in Chicago and Pittsburgh's No. 1-ranked viewership (Penguins games draw higher percentages of local markets than any other club), and league brass would be hard-pressed to imagine a better draw.
New York Rangers vs. Los Angeles Kings
Where's the "like" button for a battle of the coasts featuring an Original Six club and two of the biggest television markets in the United States?
This potential matchup would need little in the way of marketing. The Rangers are an Original Six club and winners of the 1994 Stanley Cup, the year many agree hockey enjoyed its greatest popularity in the United States.
Los Angeles has some history as a member of the 1967 expansion, as well as with Wayne Gretzky's tenure during the 1990s.
The sheer size of these cities would make for one of the best television events in Finals history.
These teams may not have cracked the playoff formula just yet, but neither is short of its stars. Drew Doughty, Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar, Henrik Lundqvist—each could become a household name if LA and New York faced off for the Cup.
Detroit Red Wings vs. Montreal Canadiens
Hockey's standard-bearer versus hockey's greatest home-ice advantage.
Montreal and Detroit are two Original Six clubs which have fielded some of hockey's finest dynasties. Arguably, each is the most revered franchise in its respective nation.
Detroit holds the title of Hockeytown, and for two decades has defended that title with all-time talents and numerous championships.
Montreal may not have a slick moniker like Hockeytown, but call them whatever you want—no team has a more impassioned, ravenous fanbase than the Canadiens.
Assuming he returns, another title in Detroit would be a fitting end to the career of Nicklas Lidstrom. The Red Wings have also appeared in two of the last four Finals, and have no shortage of stars to bring to the fore.
Montreal, should it break Canada's streak of U.S. championships, would be the first Canadian team to capture the Cup since Patrick Roy's Montreal club of 1993.
Habs fans turn the Bell Centre into the most frenzied forum in hockey (in October). Try to imagine what having the Canadiens back in the Finals—win or lose—would do to that town.
And you thought the riots in Vancouver were bad.
Boston Bruins vs. Vancouver Canucks
If you don't want to see these teams square off again, you didn't watch them play in the first place.
Try to imagine the plot lines taking hold in a Finals rematch—Roberto Luongo's chance at redemption, Tim Thomas with another go-round at the Cup, the (presumably) new-look Canucks taking on a Bruins squad that doesn't figure to be harmed by free agency...
And the hate?
These teams brewed more anger, trash talk and heated play in just seven games than most regional rivals can muster in a decade. Vancouver and Boston play in different conferences, are separated by three time zones and have never met in a Cup Finals before, yet with the Cup at stake were able to fasten a blood-boiling rivalry out of thin air.
Looking at the massive television ratings drawn by this year's Finals, casual fans who tuned in to see them square off should be drawn right back in by a repeat performance.
Let's just hope the last fires in Vancouver have been put out before they meet in the 2011-12 regular season.
Washington Capitals vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Try to imagine the war of words taking place in a Cup Finals match between Chicago's Jonathon Toews, the so-called Captain Serious, against one of hockey's most vibrant and divisive personalities in Alex Ovechkin.
Gamesmanship would be taken to a new level.
No one saw the personalities of the Canucks and the Bruins turning into an endless source of storyline, but by Game 7 the elements at work were too numerous to count on two hands.
With Chicago and Washington, the differences are clear. The captains couldn't be more opposed in the ways they carry themselves. Chicago has won a Cup in recent years, and Washington is still in hot pursuit of its first as a franchise.
The Capitals may actually be older than the Blackhawks in terms of mean player age and experience, but it certainly wouldn't seem that way.
Chicago, despite its relative youth, would come off as the elder statesmen of this series. The Blackhawks represent the old guard of hockey. The team is Original Six, their captain stoic and measured in his words, their experience justified by their 2010 title.
Washington is still in search of an identity, but following the example of Ovechkin would assist the brash, love-em-or-hate-em challengers in search of their first title.
With a very visible owner in Ted Leonsis, an outspoken coach in Bruce Boudreau and one of hockey's best personalities in Ovechkin, the Capitals represent something much different than the Blackhawks.
Should they meet in the Finals, the rivalry they'll likely form could become one of the best in hockey.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings
A clash of hockey royalty? Yes, please.
Americans saw first-hand what hockey really means to Canadians when Canucks fans turned their own city upside down after Game 7 (something that seems likely to have happened even if they'd won).
There's no doubt hockey runs deep through all of Canada, but Vancouver is a minor player when compared to the Maple Leafs. Toronto is in the elite company of NHL lore, one of its oldest teams and most storied franchises.
Vancouver, unlike Toronto, has only been a franchise since the 1970s.
While Canucks fans have never known a championship team, Leafs fans not eligible for social security benefits haven't known a championship team, either. Toronto won its last Cup in 1967.
In historical perspective, that means the Leafs were last champions while the Vietnam War was young, the Beatles were ushering in the hippie age with the release of Sgt. Pepper's and the world was only four years removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It's hard to imagine this as the marquee matchup of American vs. Canadian teams, given that Toronto has been so mediocre for so long, but a Maple Leafs-Red Wings match would be on par with Wings-Canadiens.
Toronto is part of hockey's elite. It would be immeasurably good for the sport to see them return to that elite status, and even better if matched against one of the game's best franchises in Detroit.
Philadelphia Flyers vs. San Jose Sharks
Someone's getting off the schneide.
Philadelphia hasn't had a title since winning its second in two years in 1975. With their massive pool of talent at forward and the apparent moves being made to acquire star goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, it seems that GM Paul Holmgren and the Flyers are doing everything imaginable to bring the Cup back to Eastern Pennsylvania.
San Jose is one of the league's newer clubs but has established itself as one of the premier NHL franchises with a string of incredible regular-season success.
Each, in its own way, has a monkey to get off its back.
For the Flyers, its about erasing three-plus decades of championship failure. The Flyers have appeared in six Finals since last winning it in '75, losing each.
Philadelphia has remained one of the most competitive and successful teams in the league over that stretch, trailing only the Canadiens in average points earned per season, but has yet to finish the job.
San Jose, meanwhile, has earned a reputation as playoff chokers that they are slowly beginning to shake off. The Sharks have missed the postseason only once since 1997-98, winning the Pacific Division title in six of the last nine seasons (including four straight) and a President's Trophy in 2008-09.
Though they've reached the Conference Finals in consecutive seasons, the Sharks are just 1-8 against the Blackhawks and Canucks in those series.
As far as hockey goes, a series between the Flyers and Sharks might get someone killed. Boston and Vancouver featured more and bigger hits than anyone imagined, and only Boston came in known for its physicality.
San Jose is one of the biggest teams in hockey, and no self-respecting Flyers club would back down from a physical challenge. The hits would be all-time great.
San Jose isn't a traditional market but has been one of hockey's best for years. Philadelphia, meanwhile, lacks nothing in terms of a fanbase and television market. The NHL would benefit from seeing these teams square off.