Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The run to the Stanley Cup: nothing compares to it

A year ago yesterday, the Chicago Blackhawks had just opened the Stanley Cup Final round against the Philadelphia Flyers. They beat the Flyers 6-5 on home ice before a home crowd of 22,312 in a wild game where both teams' first lines went -16 (with zero points among the 31 total), and the 11 goals were scored by 10 different players. Worth noting - it was the first time 11 goals had been scored in a Final game since 1992; the feat would be repeated eight days later in Game 5.

The discussion last year was all about how the goalies weren't going to be the difference in this Final series. Michael Leighton, who had once played for the Blackhawks but now was manning the goal for Philadelphia, was in the net opposite Antti Niemi, the rookie who had usurped the Chicago starting goalie job from Cristobal Huet. In the end, of course, it was about the goaltending, as Niemi stoned the Flyers in Game 6 OT, and Patrick Kane netted the winning goal through a seemingly impossible angle on Leighton's five-hole.

This year, it's all about the goaltenders, as Vezina finalists Tim Thomas (Bruins) and Roberto Luongo (Canucks) face off starting Wednesday in Vancouver. The teams have gone a collective 79 years without a Cup - Boston last won it in 1972, and Vancouver has never won it in their 40 years of team history. This year, one of those massive droughts will end, and a team, a city, a fanbase, (and if it's the Canucks, a country) will celebrate the Stanley Cup victory in the same way that Chicago did last year when 49 years of waiting came to an end.

Luongo and Thomas both enter the Final round with 12 wins and 2 shutouts in 18 games played. They bear matching GAAs of 2.29, although Thomas's sv% is slightly higher, .929 to Luongo's .922. Many have pointed to the Canucks as the more formidable team to beat; but in the single matchup between the two teams during the regular season, Boston beat Vancouver 3-1.

The stats no longer matter.

When the puck drops on Wednesday evening, nothing matters except the seven games ahead, and which team can be the first to achieve four wins.

Winning the Stanley Cup is always a triumph. It is the toughest trophy to win in sports: a marathon waged over two months, after a demanding six-month regular season. Hockey players are not just athletes; they are warriors, battling it out on the ice, and playing through injuries that most other athletes wouldn't even consider playing on. It's the playoffs. It's what you do.

Only a player could describe the euphoria of being the ones to hoist the Cup on the ice at the end of the Final round but the fanbase is there for the ride, too, and share in it.

Winning the Cup never gets old, but absolutely nothing can replicate the joy, the ecstasy, the triumph of breaking a Cup drought that is older than most of the players on the team. For a team to have not won a Cup in 20, 30, 40+ years ... it is an invisible elephant in the room that haunts a team and a fanbase year after year. When it looks like "this will be the year" for a team, and they wash out of the playoffs before the Final round, there is disappointment and tears. There's discussion of "next season" and the years ahead.

This year, one of two huge droughts will end. The other team will dry their tears, go home, and come back again next year to try again; and they will not be alone, as there are other teams who have also gone 40+ seasons without Cups of their own.

As a fan of hockey, whether or not you would choose to root for one of the teams, you could not ask for anything more (unless, of course, your own team of choice was playing for the Cup). Two very strong teams, with different styles, with outstanding goalies, battling in what should be an epic Cup run.

For the sake of hockey fans everywhere, you have to hope that this goes to seven games. Anything less would seem disappointing; you want the suspense and excitement to last as long as it can.

And while Bruins and Canucks fans each are hoping for their team to sweep the other, that likely won't happen. Savor every single game - win or lose. (Although, admittedly, it's harder to enjoy the losses.) Final round appearances don't happen every year (well, unless you're Detroit), so when it's been a generation between going to The Show, it's something to savor.

Boston and Vancouver have hardly any historical rivalry to fall back on, so this year will be the start of one. With two animals represented in the team names/logos, the jokes have already been flying between the two fan bases - killer sharks eating bears; bears destroying orcas. Canucks fans snickered that Zdeno Chara called his team up for a group picture with the Prince of Wales (saying "that's the only Cup you'll win"); yet Vancouver dumped so much confetti on the ice after winning the Campbell, you'd think it was the Stanley Cup they were celebrating. Parodies of Boston's "Bruins Hockey Rules" have have already been popping up around the internet, and Canucks fans seem to be particularly enthralled with parody songs.

Enjoy every moment of the Cup run, Bruins and Canucks fans. The highs, the lows, the in-betweens. It's a ride unrivaled in sports, and this year, we're going to see a parade and a fanbase partying like we saw in Chicago last year.

Best of luck to both teams.

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