Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar lead their star-studded lineups in the Western Conference final. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
If you’re a fan of the underdog or the perceived merits of a salary cap, then this year’s conference finals probably aren’t your (Stanley) Cup of tea. But if your attitude is “parity, schmarity,” you’re likely buckling in for what you hope will be a thrilling ride through the NHL’s final four.
All hail to the plucky overachievers. And don’t worry, there is still a place for you in today’s NHL. After all, if we knew all the time which team was going to win going in, there wouldn’t be much reason to actually watch the games.
But admit it, isn’t it nice once in a while to see four teams in the conference finals who actually are the four best teams in the NHL, three of which play in huge markets (Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago) and three of which play in cities where the game is actually, you know, relevant (Pittsburgh, Boston, Chicago)? And no, despite the Kings’ Stanley Cup last spring, hockey is still not relevant there. When a team has been in the city 45 years and the L.A. Times has to do a front-page story explaining the rudimentary aspects of the sport, it’s not relevant.
But the fact that it’s these four teams in the conference finals should have your pulse racing. So should the prospect of the first all-Original 6 Stanley Cup final since 1979. When these kinds of things happen, it’s good for the game and it’s really, really good for the NHL’s bottom line. And in a season when the billionaires and millionaires deprived their fans of three months of hockey while they hijacked the game, this was the least they could do.
The fact these four teams are heavyweights and represent that past four winners of the Stanley Cup makes it even better. When was the last time the teams playing in the conference finals were so evenly matched? Both the Penguins-Bruins and Blackhawks-Kings series are pick ‘em affairs with all kinds of interesting subplots to them. Will Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow be proved right in choosing to go to the Penguins over the Bruins at the trade deadline? Will future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr come back to haunt the franchise where he started his career and won two Stanley Cups? On the western side, are we watching a future Hall of Fame career unfold before our eyes with Kings goalie Jonathan Quick? Is Darryl Sutter really this much of a genius? Can Chicago’s skill come to fore on a consistent basis and overcome the Kings size and physical advantage?
All questions that will be answered over the next two weeks on some of the biggest stages in the hockey world. There are times when conference finals fail to live up to the hype, but your trusty correspondent is guessing this year’s series won’t fall into that category.
• Damien Cox of the Toronto Star reports that the Canadian Hockey League is considering placing a ban on import goaltenders in an effort to give North American stoppers a better chance at developing. Wow. How provincial. Sure, give us your scoring stars and your stud defensemen because, hey, they sell tickets, but leave your goaltenders at home. I wonder how Canadians and Americans not good enough to play in the NHL would react if European leagues told their goaltenders they need not apply for work.
• Through all of the coverage of the Patrick Roy hiring in Colorado, did anyone notice even one mention of the invisible man and actual Avalanche GM Greg Sherman? Anyone?
• I agree with former NHLer Darcy Tucker, who tweeted recently that it’s all well and good to jump high, go through fitness testing without puking and do chin-ups until the cows come home, but nobody will ever remember what players did at the NHL draft combine. What they will remember is how big a heart the player had and how he competed when he stepped on the ice. That’s from someone who knew that better than almost anyone when he played.
• I’m being told that it’s almost a fait accompli that the league and the NHL Players’ Association will finally come to an agreement on facial protection this summer, with all players entering the league required to wear them.
• The Detroit Red Wings continue to amaze. Some games during the playoffs, they looked old and slow. And others, they looked as though they could win the Stanley Cup. Everyone continues to wait for the Red Wings to falter, but forget about that happening. There might be a couple of years like this one where they’re life-and-death to make the playoffs, but GM Ken Holland is too crafty and Mike Babcock is too good a coach for this organization to ever truly bottom out.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.