Saturday, June 5, 2010

If there's people leaping off the bandwagon because the series has gone to 2-2, that's fine. Gives the rest of us some elbow room.

This Stanley Cup Final brought together one of the top teams in the league with a team that was lucky to have squeaked into the playoffs at all. You might even be confused about which team is which, however, based on how they've performed thus far in the Final round.

But, ultimately, both terms deserve to be there. You do not reach the Final round in the Stanley Cup race by simply being "lucky". You do not make it through three previous best-of-seven rounds without having the necessary talent, determination, skill, grit, and most importantly, the desire to make it there. There's 28 other teams wishing they were still in the playoffs right now.

There is no doubt that all this takes its toll on the players. Hockey, including preseason games, stretches across eight months of the calendar year, 82 games for the regular season. Then begins the playoffs, or, as they're commonly called because they stretch across two months, "second season", the season every hockey player lives and dies for. By the time the two last teams standing meet for Lord Stanley's chalice, some of the players will be hitting the 100-game mark. More, if there are special events like All-Star games or the Olympics in the middle of their season.

Climbing that last final stretch - those last seven games - is like running the last mile of a marathon. You know the reward is the best thing you'll ever have, but you have to make it through that last bit first.

It is the most difficult trophy to win in all of sports, and it is revered even by those who do not play hockey.

Even people who aren't hockey fans know what the Stanley Cup is. It's an unmistakable trophy, standing just shy of three feet tall, and weighing in at 34.5 pounds. It's been around the world multiple times; it's been drop-kicked into a canal, thrown in a pool, and carried up mountains. And, uniquely among sports trophies, every player or team member (coach, etc) who gets the honor of having their name engraved upon the trophy gets to take it home for a day, to do with it as they please. Children have been baptized in the top bowl. Cereal and champagne have been consumed from it. If only the trophy could speak, the stories it could tell.

Perhaps because of its size, the trophy has taken on almost a persona. You hear about people being "introduced" to the Cup, or "meeting" the Cup.

Ask any hockey player in the NHL, and they'll tell you they grew up with dreams of winning the Stanley Cup. Whether they started playing hockey on the rink or in the street, the vision was to score that winning goal in the final game of the series.

I didn't play ice hockey. I would've liked to, but when I was in high school, growing up in southern New England in the mid-80s, there simply weren't the opportunities for girls' hockey that you find today. The closest I could come to ice hockey was to play field hockey, and so that's what I played. I was a goalie, which may explain my current tendency to favor goalies as players. And visions of the Stanley Cup danced in my head, because that was something that motivated and inspired me.

Our teams didn't win any championships. Perhaps if I had been more dedicated to a single sport and/or had decided to start playing sports earlier, I might've developed into an athlete. What I might have lacked in innate skill, I worked hard to overcome with focus, drive, determination, and a natural competitiveness. Our school's girl's basketball coach actually asked me to try out for the team, but I did indoor track during the winter. Looking back, I probably should've tried out, given it a go.

It's easy to look back and say in hind sight the could've, should've, would'ves.

I'm not going to look at tonight's Game 4 and overanalyze it to bits. There's plenty of other sports writers busy doing that right now.

It was a hard game to watch as a fan. Hockey is my sport of choice, and the Blackhawks have been my favored team for a dozen years. (I grew up as a Whalers fan.) Last year's playoff run was surprising and tantalizing and naturally, everybody expected the team to return, and go farther and do better this year.

To win it all.

The Blackhawks had a dominant season, their best team record in franchise history. They broke records. But along the way, they made some mistakes, Coach Quenneville ("Coach Q") became notorious for his line tinkering, and they had some sloppy habits - most notably, not playing the full 60 minutes of a game.

Not playing a full 60 minutes in the playoffs is going to come back to bite you in the butt - and hurt a lot.

After the way they played against Nashville, it seemed amazing that the Blackhawks survived the series to make it into the second round. The Predators battled hard and they made it clear they weren't going out without a fight. Ditto for the Vancouver Canucks, and make it double for the San Jose Sharks, who battled Chicago hard and yet the Hawks still managed a sweep of the third round.

Then came the final round.

The one thing you can say decisively about this series is that it is, has been, and still will be anybody's game. Game 1, it was clear that both teams were overloaded on nerves and excitement. Both goalies gave up too many goals, and play was sloppy on both ends of the ice. Game 2 was far tighter, and it was much more obvious just how evenly matched these teams are, despite dramatically different styles of play. It's said that the mark of champions is that they win not only when they should, but even when they shouldn't. Games 1 and 2 could've gone to either side, but the Blackhawks were ahead 2-0 when the series shifted to Philadelphia.

I doubt that there is anybody on the Blackhawks team that deep-down thinks that they were going to skate into the Final series and have it go easy, or that they'd sweep it like just happened against San Jose. One has to give credit to the Philadelphia Flyers for battling through a rough season and then taking advantage of the chance they were given by landing a place in the playoffs.

The Flyers have not won every game in this series - it is 2 and 2, after all - but they're consistent. They have clearly studied the other team, but much more importantly, they know what works for them, and that's what they play. They trap; they pinch; they're good at shutting down star players.

Their main star, Chris Pronger, might be a cocky, disrepectful, oversized buffoon, but he's their buffoon, a guy who already owns a Cup ring, an Olympic gold medal, and who has racked up a long career marked not only with a selection of awards for his solid defensive play, but who is also well known for being physical, dirty, and at times, downright brutal. In his first two years in the NHL while with the Hartford Whalers he was arrested for drunk driving and for participating in a barroom brawl while underage, and was considered to be impatient and immature. He got traded around the league - perhaps not as much as some journeymen, but most players also don't rack up four different teams in six seasons. In one particularly noteworthy moment in his career in 2008, he purposely stomped on another player's leg with his skates on, which resulted in an 8-game suspension. He is known for doing whatever it takes to get the job done. Need a distraction so the relentless media will lay off your players when your team loses? No problem, step up and be the distraction.

The problem with star power in hockey, or in any sport, is that the refs/umps/officials start letting you get away with more and more. And the more you get away with, the more you start pushing the envelope. And eventually, you see things happen like happened tonight: a player who can get away with blatant penalties, while another player who is perhaps not as much a "star" player, get sent to the box for the same thing. Or in one case, a nonexistant penalty.

Anybody who has watched the last four games can see the difference in penalties being called for both teams. But here is the thing: at the end of the day, the players are responsible, both individually, and as a team, not only for individual infractions, but for what the team achieves - or doesn't achieve - on the ice. Hockey is a team sport, after all.

While the refs on the ice are appearing to be downright blind to his (and in some cases, his teammates') infractions, the rest of hockey fandom and the sportscasters are not. You will hear the commentators reviewing plays and commenting on things that should or should not have been penalties. If the Blackhawks can win this thing, it will certainly NOT be because the officiating has gone in their favor. If anything, they've had to battle against it the whole way, not just in this series but earlier ones as well.

With two losses in Philadelphia fresh on the plate, the sports media is rushing to drop the Blackhawks and embrace the Flyers as the "underdog" story of the year.

After all, nice boys don't sell papers. Villians do.

Chicago has ridden high on the Blackhawks for the past few months. They have every right and reason to do so. Here is a squad of talented, highly skilled men who are collectively nice guys. Even the team "meat" (as Adam Burish got dubbed by another team during the playoffs) are nice guys. There is a lot to like about the Hawks. They love their fans, they love playing together, they have had a truly inspirational year and playoff run thus far. They have the best Cinderella story of the playoffs, a virtually-unknown rookie goalie from Finland who has taken his team as deep in the playoffs as you could only have dared hope two months ago.

To cap it all off with the Stanley Cup would be the icing on the cake, an exclamation point to an incredible year.

Due to the salary cap, it is expected that this roster of players will not all be together next year. That's a fact the team has to deal with, and which will sadden the fans next year. Surely it weighs on the players' minds each night when they take the ice.

That is why the Blackhawks have to take their games with a different mindset for the last three games.

If there's one takeaway you get from listening to the players in interviews, or watching them play, is that they click. They work great together, and part of that is from bonding on the road and having fun together. But there is little doubt that there is a lot of pressure on this team as well. Their city expects them to break a 49-year trophy drought, for starters. Ever since last season, the pressure has been there: to do better, get higher, take the whole thing.

The Blackhawks have gotten two wins in the last four games, but they managed to do that without being on the top of their game. Quenneville kept the lines that worked against the Sharks and the Canucks, but they have not found the same success. After grabbing a 2-game lead, they went into Philadelphia, where Q simply tried to play too much chess and linematching in game 3. The Hawks never managed to develop a good rhythm, and were lucky to carry the game into overtime. Unfortunately, in overtime, a poorly-timed line advantage was exploited by the Flyers for the win.

In game 4, one can only imagine how frustrated Antti Niemi must have felt in goal. Although the Finn rarely shows any signs of problems getting to him, the rest of us had to watch as the defense was nearly non-existant in front of him throughout the first period, and one of his own teammates made a costly pair of mistakes. The whole first period was bad as a team, and it seems amazing that the team wasn't in more of a hole than 1-3.

Chicago started to come back in the second, outshooting Philadelphia, but both teams not adding any new goals to the board. Finally, in the middle of the third, it was like the Hawks flipped a switch and began taking it to the Flyers, rallying to score twice with some opportunities to send the game into overtime. But the Flyers tightened up, and when the Hawks went to empty net, the game was sealed by the 5th goal from the Flyers.

Q made a couple changes in the lineup tonight, putting in Andrew Ladd and Bryan Bickell for Adam Burish and Jordan Hendry. Bickell and Ladd ended on the positive side at the end of the night, but I think the team missed the energy, and more importantly, the relaxed attitude of Adam Burish, who went on record after game 3 as stating that the Stanley Cup games are fast, intense, and fun.

Ah, yes, fun.

Because hockey is, after all, a game.

And like Crash Davis said in Bull Durham while teammates stewed over a dozen issues, "So relax! Let's have some fun out here! This game's fun, OK? Fun, goddamnit."

The team wants to bring home the Stanley Cup because it's every hockey player's dream. They would also like to do it for the fans, their coach, and the city that has put so much belief in them.

It's impossible to take the pressure fully off this team, but I look at them, with just three games left of this magical season, with this perfect roster, the thing I wish for them most of all is to have fun together. I hope that they can truly enjoy this experience for all it has to offer them, and find a way to hoist the most celebrated trophy in sports over their heads.

It's easier to say than to do, but they need to relax, and more importantly, keep things simple, starting with Coach Q. He needs to let his lines develop rhythm, and clearly, based on tonight's performance, he needs to stir those lines up a little. Splitting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane forces the other team to decide who's going to be the larger threat. Dustin Byfuglien unfortunately hasn't been producing on the top line, but Ben Eager has. Shake and bake accordingly. Marian Hossa continues to be a force to be reckoned with, and I think he could be moved between lines a bit to really make things happen. Between Hossa and Niemi, the two seem to be carrying the team through this series by sheer willpower.

The players themselves need to keep it simple and keep plays clean. The Flyers have clearly figured out that Chicago passes a lot, so cut down on that, carry the puck more. When Chicago has put the pressure on in this series, they've been able to pepper the net. Philadelphia is good at clogging up their own defense - including occasionally crashing into their own goalie or net - so use that to advantage.

Standing outside the big stage and the spotlight, it's simple to say what should be done and what needs to be done, but it's a different thing to put it into action. On the positive side, the Blackhawks have also played some of their most brilliant, desperate hockey when down. The Flyers have been playing desperate but consistent hockey all along this series.

It's been said that you have to make your own luck. Instead of thinking about drawing PPs, they have to assume they're not going to get any, and adjust play accordingly: play smart, keep an eye out for what's going on around them, and make things happen. The Flyers aren't going to give them any breaks, so they have to do what Philadelphia does, and take them when they see them. There isn't a single Blackhawks fan out there who gives a damn how pretty a goal is; we just want to see them go in.

If there's people leaping off the bandwagon because the series has gone to 2-2, that's fine. Gives the rest of us some elbow room. There's a reason the Stanley Cup Final is a best of 7 games, and there's still plenty of hockey to be played.

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