The long grind of the Stanley Cup playoffs is over and the Anaheim Ducks are the deserving champions. I had the privilege of covering the final series for the tenth time for NHL International and the sight of the Cup entering a frenzied arena never gets old. It’s also amazing to see these athletes, among the toughest in any sport, cry like young children after reaching their ultimate goal. Here are some other thoughts and observations as I make one last cross country flight from the west coast back home:
• Scott Niedermayer was absolutely the correct choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. His calming influence on the ice and in the dressing room was so important to this team that played the game on the edge. The Ducks are only the fourth team in the expansion era (since 1967-68) to lead the NHL in penalty minutes and win the Cup that year (‘70 Bruins, ‘74 & ‘75 Flyers were the others). This team needed a captain like Scott to keep things on an even keel. A great example was the way he reacted to Daniel Alfredsson firing the puck at him at the end of the second period in game four. Although Alfredsson later said it was an unfortunate accident, it certainly looked intentional and could have set off a reaction from Scott’s teammates. His comments in the dressing room prior to the start of the third period told his teammates that it was over in his mind and the only focus had to be on winning the game and taking control of the series. The Ducks did just that and went on to play perhaps their most disciplined game of the series in game five. It was also a great touch for Scott to hand the Cup first to his brother Rob. I’m sure Denis Potvin would agree that a great deal of thought goes into which player the captain will hand the Cup. For Scott, his choice was an easy one. Scott didn’t score as much as other MVPs, but his goals were huge: overtime series clincher in game five vs. Vancouver…overtime winner in game one vs. Detroit….tying goal in the final minute of game five at Detroit.
• Teemu Selanne became just the sixth Finnish player to get his name on the Cup. He joined Jari Kurri, Esa Tikkanen, Reijo Ruotsalainen, Ville Nieminen and Jere Lehtinen. His emotions during the post game interviews captured what the Stanley Cup means to all NHL players regardless of where they’re from.
• Chris Pronger played most of game five with a separated shoulder. Early in the first period, he was hit by Antoine Vermette while in an awkward position. He looked at the ref for moment before skating off the ice as if to say there should have been a penalty. After missing 7 or 8 minutes in the locker room, he came back to play, but he did not look 100 per cent. It was only after the game that we found out about the injury. Pronger, who was just back from a one game suspension, wasn’t going to miss this game. Is there any other sport where an athlete would sustain that type of injury and get right back into the action? It’s another example of the toughness of these athletes and what the Cup means to them.
• Bryan Murray and the Ottawa Senators should be congratulated for an outstanding season. The Senators had long been perceived as underachievers at playoff time, but they managed to shed that image through the first three rounds of these playoffs. When you think back to the adversity this team went through early in the season (losing 7 in a row…media and fans calling for Murray to be fired and Alfredsson to be traded), it may have been the catalyst this team needed to play up to their capability.
• What happened to Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza? I hesitate to be too critical of players at this time of year because you never know what kind of injury a player may be dealing with (like Pronger in game five). We often hear after a playoff run of players getting surgery for something that we never suspected while watching the games. That said, the Senators needed more from those two players in the final series against the Ducks. Anaheim deserves most of the credit for shutting down the Sens top line. Sammy Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer and Travis Moen were unbelievable in their tenacity and ability to not only check but also score big goals. But, when players like Spezza and Heatley aren’t scoring they have to find ways to contribute. Selanne is a great example of a talented scorer (48 goals in the regular season) who didn’t score in the final series, yet you noticed him on nearly every shift.
• Finally, I want to say something about the state of the NHL game. This is a great game and the Stanley Cup playoffs are arguably the most compelling competition in team sports. But something was missing at times this year. I heard players and coaches talk about it all season and the comments continued right through the end of the playoffs. In fact, it was the only conversation after the first period of game five when six minor penalties were called. The game has to have more passion….there need to be more battles for space on the ice…players need to be more accountable to each other for their actions. This isn’t about bashing the referees. Stephen Walkom and his officials have the toughest job in pro sports and they are only trying to follow orders from the people that run this great game. No matter where the line is drawn on what is or isn’t a penalty, there’s always going to be arguments. We’ve seen a player can skate a hundred miles an hour and run someone into the boards and not get penalized, yet another player reaches out with one hand on the stick and touches another player and it’s a “hook”. Or, in a 50-50 battle for the puck,
one player falls and the other gets called. I didn’t play this game. I only know that when it’s played the right way it’s a phenomenal game to watch. I worry that the confusion that still exists with coaches and players will lead to nothing but the “containment” game that we watched for long stretches this season. I know this is a process. My feelings about the game have as much to do with coaches finding a way to adapt to changes (like no red line…where are all the breakaways or odd man rushes we hoped to see?) as they do with the way the game is officiated. Most of the things the league did coming out of the lock out to improve the flow of the game were terrific. I just hope we can strike a balance between the skill and flow that we all want to see and the physical confrontations that need to remain part of the NHL.
I hope you all have a great summer and look forward to the 2007-08 season!