Thursday, May 27, 2010

2010 Stanley Cup Finals storylines

By Rick Morris

Yet again, hockey’s postseason has burned brighter than the one contested on the hardcourts. We have seen Montreal pull historic upsets in two different rounds. We have seen Philadelphia pull off the third 0-3 comeback in a playoff series in league history – and they did it at the expense of the city that managed the only such comeback in Major League history in 2004. We have seen San Jose finally assert themselves as a postseason power in the West, sending home the era’s dominant team in the conference in Detroit – only to skate into a buzzsaw against the mighty Blackhawks in the conference finals.

And we have one round yet to go.

At the beginning of the season, I accurately picked one of the finalists to be here in this round. Shockingly, it was not Chicago. I did actually pick Philadelphia to win the Eastern Conference, and not as a division winner either (I had them slotted as the #4 seed). I did foresee some bumps along the way, but I figured that the veteran presence of Chris Pronger would really help in the postseason. These predictions have certainly manifested themselves.

Let’s look at some other interesting angles to this series:

^ Remarkably, Philly and Chicago, two of the great American sports cities – and two on a relatively short list of metropolitan areas with franchises in all of the “Big Four” sports – have only met for two professional championships. In 1947, the Chicago Cardinals beat the Eagles, 28-21 at Comiskey Park for the NFL Championship. A year later, the Eagles got their revenge in the title game at Shibe Park, 7-0. The “rubber match” between these cities, as it were, now comes more than six decades later. Coincidentally, Chicago’s old NBA hoops coach, Doug Collins, has just signed on in the same capacity in Philadelphia.

^ With the Sixers making the NBA Finals in 2001, the Eagles winning the NFC in 2004 and the Phillies pennants of 2008-09 joining this accomplishment, the city of Philadelphia has seen its teams represented in all four of the “Big Four” championships inside of a decade – with but one title to show for it so far! Amazingly, the city is only replicating what had come previously, with the 1974 and 1975 Flyers, 1980 and 1983 Phillies, 1980 Eagles and 1977, 1980, 1982 and 1983 Sixers managed. What a decade that was! The only other occasions for this feat came in New York during the 1950s, New York between 1963 and 1973 (or 1968 and 1978 if you prefer to count the Yankees’ successes of the later years) and New York between 1986 and 1994. Of course, different fans root for different teams in Gotham, so it’s unlikely that there are too many people outside of Philly who have experienced such a run of success with only their hometown favorites involved.

^ While there has been much focus in recent years, and deservedly so, about how the Blackhawks restocked in a hurry with top three picks in consecutive years – Jonathan Toews at #3 in 2006 and Patrick Kane with the top pick a year later – it’s worth noting that both of the top two picks from the ’07 draft are actually representing in the Finals. James van Riemsdyk has certainly come on at a more measured pace than the meteoric Kane, but he has really shown flashes this year of the player he may be destined to become. Speaking of Chicago’s twin aces, the picture is reminiscent of how Pittsburgh landed Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in 2004 and 2005. That’s a comparison that the Windy City must be loving right about now.

^ Speaking of the prospect of the Hawks hoisting the Cup a year after the Penguins, it would mark a rare consecutive distinction in sports of having very young, talent-laden teams rising extraordinarily quickly to the top. It’s hard to think of too many other teams accomplishing this in the NHL in recent decades – probably Tampa in 2004, although they could not hold their great young core together. In a sport that has traditionally been predicated on seeing teams systematically work their way to the top, there really aren’t any other recent examples. And yet, the other major professional sports are even sparser in terms of seeing these types of teams succeed. You probably have to go back to the 1992 Dallas Cowboys to find a similar team winning the Super Bowl. There are no such examples of such teams winning the NBA Championship in the past few decades without a substantial veteran presence. And only the 2003 Florida Marlins look like a good example of this in baseball. Granted, both Pittsburgh and Chicago had the “veteran chaperone” here and there (Bill Guerin last year, John Madden this year), but neither player can be said to be a core part of the engine.

^ Philadelphia looks like a huge underdog because the Chicago juggernaut seems to be running at full force. If Philly does indeed go down, the fans would be entitled to groan about the team’s poor luck in terms of Finals opponents. Think about who they faced in their five Finals losses since the Cup wins of 1974 and 1975: the ‘90s Red Wings, the ‘80s Oilers (twice), the ‘80s Islanders and the ‘70s Canadiens. Ouch!

^ To this observer, who saw the Cleveland Indians come alive (fleetingly, when they had sound ownership and front office personnel) back in the 1990s, the earlier description of the fanbase as a “sleeping giant” seemed apt. When the team was inspiring the “Major League” movies, it was hard to give the team any love. So too did Blackhawks fans suffer since the team’s last Stanley Cup win in 1961. Unlike the Indians, who were pathetic for decades straight, the Hawks have had their moments here and there over the years, but they’ve never had a look this strong in that 49-year stretch. The town is electrified beyond measure for the Hawks’ success, measured both by constant chatter in the community and decibel levels at home games that rival those at the old Chicago Stadium. Even the explosive offenses of the 1995 Indians and 2010 Blackhawks parallel each other. Certainly, Chicago fans will be hoping for a better ending to their long-awaited date with championship destiny.

^ Another comparison bears watching for Chicago fans, albeit one with a hated rival. The Hawks are said, accurately, to be in the midst of a “short window” based on salary cap commitments and ramifications. A difficult summer is supposed to lie ahead for the front office in this regard. However, the Detroit Red Wings have long consolidated their standing based on the theory that “winning begets winning.” Create a champion, a dynamic winner that promises the constant chance at glory, and others will clamor to join it – even at a reduced rate. Even before the institution of the salary cap, players were routinely taking less money to wear the Winged Wheel (for the best example, check out the below-market dollars paid out to many of the future Hall of Famers on the vaunted ’02 champions). Chicago’s ability to retain existing talent and attract new talent will probably be much less problematic if they end up skating the Cup at the end of this series (much to my chagrin as a Wings fan!).

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