The NBA playoffs have started, baseball is well under way, but here’s why the grueling, blood-and-thunder battle for the most coveted beer chalice in North America is the real deal.
The Giants Have Been Slain
ESPN’s veteran hockey analyst Barry Melrose — yes, the Melrose of the Mullet — predicted at the start of the playoffs that the finals would be contested between two league powerhouses, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks. This was a safe bet: Pittsburgh, boasting the NHL’s two most celebrated stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Chicago, 2010 Stanley Cup champions, both have the pedigree and the nous to make it through to the end. But they were both dumped out in the first round, along with perennial contenders like the Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks as well as the defending champion Boston Bruins.
In their place, others have risen to the fore, not least the Philadelphia Flyers, led by playmaking dynamo Claude Giroux. The center is the playoffs scoring leader by a country mile and was instrumental in the Flyers’ demolition of the much-fancied Penguins, outshining both Crosby and Malkin.
Return of the Coastal Elites
You have to go back two decades to find a moment when the NHL’s franchises in New York City and Los Angeles looked this capable of competing for the Stanley Cup. The great Wayne Gretzky led the Los Angeles Kings to their only Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1993 — and coincidentally, in 1997, was on the last New York Rangers team to reach the Eastern Conference finals. The two teams entered the playoffs in vastly different fashion: L.A. barely qualified, crawling in via the eighth and final spot in the Western conference, whereas the Rangers cruised in at the top of the East, though they dipped a bit in the final months of the regular season. By day’s end today, they both may hold commanding leads in their respective conference semifinals.
They play similar styles, buoyed by two of the best goalies in the league in the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist and the Kings’ Jonathan Quick, and the leadership of two rugged, tireless American captains in Ryan Callahan and Dustin Brown. The struggle L.A. endured in simply reaching the post-season toughened up an undoubtedly talented squad, which eliminated the conference leading Canucks in the first round. The Rangers, meanwhile, have been grinding out victories all season long; no locker room in the NHL is more united. Though Keeping Score is not one for predictions, don’t be too surprised if the final clash for the Stanley Cup is a showdown between the Big Apple and Tinseltown.
The Phoenix Coyotes could very well not exist. Bought by the NHL in 2009 after the franchise went bankrupt, the team has for years been up for relocation, the subject of speculation and hand-wringing despair. Formerly the Winnipeg Jets, the franchise couldn’t even go home — the Atlanta Thrashers already relocated to Winnipeg last season. Their finances uncertain, the Coyotes have had to build cleverly. There are few household names on their squad, but that soon may change. Goalie Mike Smith has had a phenomenal late season surge; 20-year-old Swedish defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is playing with the guile and confidence of a veteran ten years his senior. Not surprisingly, the Coyotes have already opened up a two-game lead over the Nashville Predators — a side more than a few hockey hacks tipped for top honors in the post-season. And the best news for Phoenix? A new ownership group that will not move the club may takeover as early as next week.
The Young Guns
The relentless pace of the NHL playoffs often leads to the top forwards on dueling teams canceling each other out. That’s why no narrative of a Stanley Cup victory is complete without some paean to a veteran role player who stepped up his game and scored clutch goals.
But this year’s post-season may be about young, inexperienced stars skating into the limelight. Names to remember, apart from the aforementioned Ekman-Larsson:
Chris Kreider: a 2010 first round draft pick, Kreider won a second championship with Boston College less than a month ago before signing his first contract with the Rangers. Possessing a tantalizing combination of sheer size and speed, he debuted in Game 3 of New York’s series against Ottawa — a daunting stage for the start of any hockey career — and has not looked back, playing a vital role in that series’ deciding Game 7 and scoring the game-winning goal in the Rangers’ series opener against Washington.
Brayden Holtby: If Kreider and the Rangers are to be turned aside, it’ll be up to young Holtby, who began the season as Washington’s third choice goaltender but ended up holding the line in their first round playoff upset against Boston after injuries took out the two established netminders in front of him.
James van Riemsdyk: The Flyers’ talented power forward has been dogged by injuries this season, but proved immense in Philadelphia’s series-opening game against turnpike rivals New Jersey. A Jersey boy, “JVR” tormented the Devils, scoring a goal and creating another one with his bulk and hockey smarts. Supported by an impressive corps of rookie forwards — Braydon Schenn, Sean Couturier — Van Riemsdyk, who grew up a New York Rangers fan, may be the answer to Philadelphia’s near four-decade-long cup drought.