Friday, May 15, 2009

Hockey's Spring Madness

     By Scott Morganroth
     While other sports post-season's are fun to watch, it's still hard to match the excitement of the NHL Playoffs.
     This is a tournament where at crunch time the officials call fewer penalties and swallow the whistle. If there is a penalty, it's going to have to be an obvious one because that one power play could be the decisive blow to a team's quest to put their name on the famed Stanley Cup Trophy.
     How about those marathon contests when the goaltenders show how valuable they are and make the Boston & New York City Marathons look like the 40-yard dash. We've seen premature whistles that can cost a team a goal when the official didn't see the puck with players scrambling in front of the net to jam the biscuit and put it in the basket. Those tired legs for the rest of the players remind me of jello in the grocery store. 
     How many other sports have each team shaking the other's ones hands when their series are complete? Sportsmanship is a great message to send to the youngsters watching.
     The NHL was fortunate to have three Game 7's for the first time since 2001, as the three conference semifinals went the distance. That's the good news. The bad news is, how many people actually saw these games on Versus? Not as many as there would be if any of the ESPN Networks or the Turner Stations had the television rights, or perhaps NBC would have added a game or two.
     So while NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman can be proud that he had outstanding match-ups and competition, the exposure could have been much better!
     But now the Frozen Four does consist of four USA based teams.
      Two of them are original six teams that are meeting for the first time since the 1995 Western Conference Finals. The Chicago Blackhawks against the Detroit Red Wings series figures to do be a dandy with cities which have storied traditions. While there will be no Gordie Howe against Bobby Hull on the frozen pond, the goaltending match up features Detroit's Chris Osgood, who has won three Stanley Cups against Nikolai Khabibulin, the net minder who led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the promised land.
     Khabibulin posted his 41st career shutout on April 12 blanking the defending champs 3-0 in Chicago. The Blackhawks also defeated Detroit on April 11, 4-2 however the Red Wings were without Marian Hossa and Kris Draper for both games and Nicklas Lidstrom for the finale.
     The upstart Blackhawks did an outstanding job winning two hard fought series in Western Canada against the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks. There is no doubt that Coach Joel Quenneville is telling his team to not become too over confident because his team swept the Red Wings during the final weekend of the season.
     What few people realize is the one thing these two cities have in common is Chicago is the home of the original comedy club called "The Second City" while Detroit added a "Second City" downtown.
     The Red Wings Game 7 heroics came with three minutes left as Daniel Cleary scored the game winning goal battling for the puck in front of the net for a 4-3 triumph.
     The NHL got a break when the Boston Bruins versus Carolina Hurricanes series went into overtime. These games started 30 minutes apart so the country didn't see all of both games. Bettman should have moved one of these games to Friday May 15 because as it turned out, there were no NHL or NBA Playoff Games on any network and hockey would have had the big stage all to itself.
     However, it didn't but as I just mentioned, overtime saved the NHL as Scott Walker scored the game winning goal 18:46 into the extra period to lift Carolina to the next round. It turned out to be Walker's first goal in is 25th playoff appearance.
     Boston was trying to accomplish what no other Bruins team has ever done and that's win a series when it trailed 3-1 but that was not meant to be as they dropped to 0-21 with two of those series reaching seven games.
     NBC had it's dream match-up a year ago when the Red Wings faced the Pittsburgh Penguins.      Can you imagine what the ratings would be if the Blackhawks or Red Wings faced the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals with these original six teams in large media markets?
     It's still hard to believe that the Bruins haven't won a championship since the early 1970's when Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk, Bobby Orr, Gerry Cheevers, Wayne Cashman to name a handful were fun to watch. 
     With the recent championship runs of the Red Sox, Celtics and New England Patriots, it's hard to believe that the Bruins have the longest drought in one of the best sports towns in the country. But the Bruins will once again have to wait until next year.
      Maybe by the time we see an original six finals, the national television contract will be greatly improved.
     While the final Game 7 didn't match the other's, the series between the Penguins and Washington Capitals was a classic. Washington's Alex Ovechkin outscored Sidney Crosby 14-13 in points but it didn't matter in the clinching game as the Capitals dropped a 6-2 decision.
     Crosby's first Game 7 of his career showed poise and no nervousness as he scored a pair of goals to raise his NHL leading playoff goal total to 12. In the Capitals series, Crosby has eight goals and five assists for 13 points while Ovechkin had 14 points. But Ovechkin will be trading his hockey stick for a golf club this summer.
     As we move forward, NBC still has a rematch of Detroit against Pittsburgh to look forward to and ironically, on February 1st, the Peacock Network watched the Steelers defeat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl 43 in Tampa. The only thing we won't see with this possible match up is Al Michaels and John Madden calling the action. 
     Yet how many Americans would be disappointed if Al Michaels and Ken Dryden called this series as they did the Miracle on Ice in 1980. But there is no doubt that Mike "Doc" Emerick and Ed Olczyk will do a fine job. The only thing they'll do differently in the Red Wings and Penguins sequel is that Hossa and Red Wings backup Ty Conklin have switched from the Gold and Black to the Red and White uniforms.
      But I'm looking forward to more intense hockey, officials swallowing their whistles letting the stars play, overtimes, etc. as all four teams have eight wins but there are eight more to go to reach 16 in their quest to raise the most prestigious trophy in all of sports.
     Scott Morganroth can be reached at 


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