Gallagher: Who do you want to root for? Skill or brawn? Good or Evil?
NHL semifinals are a microcosm of how the game is evolving
So the NHL has what are essentially its dream matchups at this stage of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The stars of the Pens are playing the always-present and menacing Boston Bruins, and the two largest U.S. markets in the West are clashing in L.A. and Chicago.
And in both cases, you have this Good vs. Evil think going — at least, that’s the way some Vancouver Canuck fans might look at it.
And there are other ways to state the same thing. You have Finesse vs. Muscle, Skill vs. Physicality, Artistry vs. Thuggery and any other descriptions you’d care to apply to these clashes, both of which will, of course, draw terrific television audiences.
Skeptics in many of the cities that have just recently been eliminated will say the matchups were designed that way, but for the moment, let’s try to get past that and look at what these battles in the next couple of weeks might mean for the game.
Looking at the West, you have the Blackhawks, who escaped the Wings by the hair on Stan Bowman’s head, even though they held a fairly significant edge in play in many of the games. They will be trying to keep playmaking and skill alive against the Kings, who have won six straight playoff series the same way.
The Hawks try to do it with speed and depth of skill, the effectiveness of which checks in and out as Patrick Kane’s mood shifts and Jonathan Toews’ frustration level varies, and that level of frustration will be severely tested by the defending Cup champions.
L.A.’s season started like it generally does with this group — slowly — when the referees are calling penalties in the first half. But when the whistles were swallowed somewhere in the middle of this shortened season, the Kings began to come on and haven’t stopped, their consistency always assured by the tremendous goaltending of Jonathan Quick, who is showing everyone that last year’s remarkable performance was anything but a one-year wonder.
This is not to say L.A. doesn’t have solid forwards, as clearly there aren’t many better in all the world than Anze Kopitar, and both Jeff Carter and Mike Richards would help any team in any league. But they are most assuredly players consistent with the team’s style, which is in your face on every square inch of seemingly diminishing ice surface.
After Chicago’s difficulty with the upstart Wings you would have to probably install L.A. as the favourites, even though they are starting on the road and finished well behind Chicago in the now meaningless regular-season standings.
They will be somewhat helped by the back-to-back start given they’ve had the extra day’s rest, and combined with their enormous edge in goal, those legs up should offset the fact they are the first to travel.
And suppose somehow that Boston should get by Pittsburgh in the East and the two big physical clubs meet in the final. It would resemble the Kings-Blues series in many ways, but Boston has more experience, better goaltending and perhaps tougher players, so the collisions would be significant, the whole affair spiced by the totally random nature of the officiating in the game these days.
Such a series would be fun for those who like that kind of hockey, and it’s entirely likely to start the rest of the teams in hot pursuit of the biggest, fastest people on skates, regardless of their skill level. If that happens, Vancouver’s signing of Tom Sestito earlier this week could go from humdrum paperwork on a possible fourth-liner to a tour de force for management.
In such an environment, it is hard to imagine any sort of future for the likes of the Sedins, Jordan Schroeder, Jannik Hansen, Mason Raymond and a whole host of other players like them both in this city or around the league. And at that point, it would be hard to say where the game was headed.
A Pittsburgh-Chicago final, however, might — I repeat, might — help to reverse the onslaught of monsters and re-introduce speed and skill which is seemingly in such short supply.
And a Chicago-Boston or Pittsburgh-L.A. series would be just another example of what we’re about to see in these semis so there wouldn’t be much more to learn.
As these games unfold, rooting for the way you’d like to see the game go may not be a bad idea.
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