We have a special treat for you all today. Former Robert Morris University hockey super star Brian Panucci is joining us as a guest writer. Panucci is a hard core Penguins fan and can hardly contain himself since his squad is in the Stanley Cup finals so he was forced to put pen to paper. Take it away Panuch!
This as most of my ideas do, started as a text message then became an e-mail. I have been visiting Empty Backfield and saw a Nascar article then I figured maybe you could use a once annual NHL article.
Getting a college football crowd to watch hockey is basically like arguing to Chappelle Show’s Clayton Bigsby that Barack Obama is the right vote for President. However, I am a defender of all things hockey so I’ll take up the cause. The NHL is building momentum as a league, I know because Bill Simmons told me. So I present to you, the 5 Reasons to watch the Stanley Cup Finals:
1. Everyone Loves A Re-Match
Beating a team once can be considered a fluke or luck, a second win for the Red Wings would demoralize the Penguins and their fan base. The Penguins would hate to play the role of Buffalo Bills to Detroit’s Dallas Cowboys. As far as owners go, Mario Lemieux is no Ralph Wilson. A Penguins loss could put the city of Pittsburgh into the year’s deepest depression that does not involve Bear-Stearns. Apollo Creed beat Rocky Balboa in a split decision the first time in Rocky and it can be argued that the Red Wings did the same thing last season. While the rosters are not the same as last year, the core groups of players are the same. For the Penguins, this is more about growing up as a team. The last time there was a re-match in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Wayne Gretzky led Oilers began their dynasty by winning a rematch against the New York Islanders who were coming off their fourth straight Cup win. Most hockey fans know that the odds of Pittsburgh going scoreless and playing the timid game they played in the first two games during last season’s final are about the same as Hockey WAG Elisha Cuthbert winning an Academy Award. Now if they can only avoid having starting goalie Marc Andre-Fleury falling flat on his face during pre-game of Game 1, they could be onto something. Neither of these teams is as chippy (hockey speak for aggressive) as many others in the league however I’m sure seeing one another again will spur them to channel their inner Ric Flair and bend the rules to get ahead. Familiarity breeds contempt as someone who was way smarter than Ric Flair once said.
2. The Best Teams Made It
Detroit was a #2 seed and Pittsburgh a #4 seed in their conferences but both were playing spectacular hockey down the stretch run of the NHL’s marathon season. For the Red Wings, that meant coasting into the playoffs as division champions and dispatching playoff virgins the Columbus Blue Jackets in four games. The defending champions then faced a tough challenge in the 8th seeded Anaheim Ducks who pushed them to seven games before beating the not ready for prime time Chicago Blackhawks. The Penguins had a much different path that included a fired coach in February when they were languishing as the 10th seed in the East. Benefiting from the new run and gun approach of Coach Dan Bylsma and acquisitions of veterans Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, Pittsburgh finished on a high note. After hard fought wins in epic battles with their two closest rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals, the Carolina Hurricanes proved to be an innocent bystander on their way to the finals. Both teams have players that NHL fans revere and casual fans actually know. These are also the highest profile teams the NHL could hope for in the Stanley Cup Finals after years of the NHL throwing enthralling match-ups like Tampa-Calgary, Carolina-Edmonton, and New Jersey-Anaheim out in their biggest stage. I may have enjoyed those but the NHL has me, it’s trying to win you over.
3. How About Some Goals?
Despite being one of the few remaining teams to employ the creativity killing neutral zone trap (non-puck heads think prevent defense), the Red Wings unexpectedly score with the regularity of David Spade. As a matter of fact, these are the two highest scoring teams of the NHL playoffs. The Penguins have two of the five best scorers in the NHL (and I’m being very conservative in trying to play down my bias) while Detroit has one of the three MVP nominees, the playoff MVP from last season, and the most coveted offensive player from free agency (more on him later). The whole playoffs have seen an increase in scoring. Case in point: Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg led last season’s playoffs with 26 points, this season Crosby and NHL regular season scoring champion Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins share the lead with 28 with the finals yet to be played. Trust me when I say both teams have scoring depth. I won’t extol the virtues of Johan Franzen or Tyler Kennedy because I’m pretty sure you don’t know them and would discard any information I give you about regarding them as quickly as Carlos Zambrano downs a chilli cheese dog (obligatory reference to another sport to make sure you pay attention). If you were to ask any fan of these teams where their team’s weakness is, fans of each side would likely say in goal where neither Fleury nor Chris Osgood is regarded as being among the best in the league.
4. The Old Guard VS. the Upstarts
Detroit has been the model NHL franchise over the past 10 or 15 years but with the talent the Penguins have assembled, they aspire to be known as that model team. The Red Wings are an original six team (the NHL had 6 teams in it’s infancy before expanding to 62 during the Bettman Era) who have 11 Stanley Cup wins while Pittsburgh has as many bankruptcies as Stanley Cups (2) and has alternated between being serious contenders and bringing their luck charms to draft lotteries. The efficiency and lack of enthusiasm that the Red Wings show while going about their business is reminiscent of the old Soviet teams that were painted as villains during their Olympic triumphs. Hockey town’s favorite team takes the personality of the quietly excellent captain Nicklas Lidstrom. The Penguins have youthful young characters like “Geno” Malkin with his broken English and cute parents who get more screen time than some players and car pitchman extraordinaire “Mad” Max Talbot. Not that Detroit is without colorful players, I hear that Mikael Samuelsson does a mean Jackie Gleason (uh-oh bias showing). Pittsburgh has struck a balance of goofballs and the business like approaches of veterans like Guerin, Phillipe Boucher, and Craig Adams that seems to work in their dressing room. Then there is Crosby who is the NHL’s poster boy (or at least on the ticket with Alex Ovechkin) and has a scary all encompassing “Tiger Woods before he met Elin” like intensity and focus for hockey. Kid Crosby makes 8.7 million per year yet boards in Owner Lemieux’s estate which keeps him shielded from things like girls, booze, and having to do his own laundry. He would almost fit in on the stoic Red Wings roster, not that Pittsburgh would give him up. Detroit has players who have been there before and were lifting the Stanley Cup over their heads when the likes of Crosby, Kris Letang, and Jordan Staal were taking Flintstone vitamins. There is a sort of mutual respect between the two teams that you would find between Neil Diamond and an American Idol contestant…they just don’t entirely understand the other.
5. The Ballad of Marian Hossa
It could make for one heck of a post-series handshake line regardless of the outcome. If you are really a hockey neophyte, let me give you the Cliff Notes version of the man they call Hossa: the Penguins pulled a blockbuster deal to acquire him at the trade deadline last season and he played the best hockey of his playoff life while teaming with Crosby to get the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals where they fell to Detroit in six games, Hossa then considers a seven year contract from the Penguins to sign a one year deal with the Red Wings because he feels they give him the best chance to win a Stanley Cup. While logic dictates that Hossa was a free agent and the “free” part entails that he can go wherever they will pay him, this was viewed as a slap in the face to the Penguins organization. Hossa had a reputation as a playoff bust prior to his run last season with Pittsburgh and has always been seen as a top line player that would fit well with one of the two all world centers who skate at Mellon Arena. His chemistry with Crosby was not immediate but it grew exponentially as the team marched on in the 2008 playoffs. Detroit was not even on the radar for most when Hossa became a free agent. The move stung many in the hockey world and went against everything we are taught as children: can’t beat’em, join’em. For this, Marian took his place among such luminaries as Barry Bonds, David Volek, and Francisco Cabrera as the biggest villains in Pittsburgh sports history. To his credit, Hossa said nothing to disparage the city or its fans. Not that it helped. Benedict Hossa is probably the nicest thing he has been called within Western Pennsylvania and he was boo’ed lustily each time he touched the puck in their regular season game. As turncoats go, this would be Johnny Damon becoming a Yankee if the Red Sox could and did play them in the World Series the very next year. Now as fate may have it, Hossa faces his former mates for the one thing he thought he could not have in Pittsburgh: the Stanley Cup. With the stage set, I implore you to watch and remember the days of the Hartford Whalers and NHL 94 on Sega Genesis when you still cared about hockey. And just maybe this series can make you pay attention again.
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