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NHL Playoffs: Best Show in Sports

by Bruce LeVine / Dallas Stars

 (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)
Anyone who claims there is a better championship tournament than the Stanley Cup playoffs is either not a hockey fan, lives in a sensory deprivation chamber or is simply not paying attention to the greatest drama on Television since Tony Soprano cut straight to black. The first round of the 2011 race for the Stanley Cup was simply the GREATEST series of games….ever.


The numbers don’t lie: eight series, nine consecutive nights of at least one game going into OT, four series playing a decisive Game 7, heroes too numerous to mention and dozens of  moments that showcase the greatness of this sport and will provide countless hours of  video for future NHL promos. (Although NY Ranger fans not are looking forward to the commercial  “History Will be Made….when Marian Gaborik attempts to back check for first time in his career”) 

Best game: Too many to choose from, LA vs. San Jose Game 3 (OT), Boston-Montreal Game 5 (2OT) Anaheim vs. Nashville Game 5 (OT), Chicago vs. Vancouver Game 6 (OT)… but without a doubt Game 7 Chicago vs. Vancouver is in a separate category by itself. The term “Instant Classic” does not do it justice. A few more games like that and NBC can claim they underpaid on their new $2 billion dollar contract with the NHL.

Best Goal: Take your pick, Bobby Ryan, Alexander Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Michael Frolik.

Best Save: About 20 come to the top of the list, and that is from Corey Crawford alone. The NHL’s elite eight took varying paths to the conference semi-finals and not one of them predictable. Again, this type of drama just can’t be duplicated anywhere in the sports universe.

Western Conference:

Vancouver Canucks:  If the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup was the greatest initial round in hockey history, then this series is the reason why. Through the first three games of the playoffs the Presidents’ Trophy winner looked unstoppable. But one Raffi Torres hit on Brent Seabrook woke up the defending Stanley Cup champions and the entire Province of British Columbia went from confidence to emotional meltdown, which also described Roberto Luongo’s performance in net. Games 6 and 7 were too good for words. Michael Frolik’s penalty shot KO’s surprise starter Corey Schneider. Ben Smith goes from Boston College to Windy City hockey hero. Future Team Canada Captain Jonathan Toews scores the tying goal shorthanded. Corey Crawford standing on his head for so long that his feet had no circulation by overtime. In the end, Alexander Burrows wins it and all of Western Canada goes crazy. As much as some despise Burrows, you have to admire a guy who began his career in places like Baton Rouge LA, Greenville and Columbia SC, just hoping for a chance. How many nights did he dream of a moment like this while riding the bus to the next ECHL destination? Vancouver moves on but their aura of invincibility is gone. Was Game 7 the rocket launch for the Canucks are did they empty the tank dethroning last year’s champs?

(AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
Detroit Red Wings: After sleepwalking through the last month of the regular season, who saw this coming??  Playing without Henrik Zetterberg, the Wings didn’t miss a beat in demolishing the Phoenix (Winnipeg?) Coyotes. .This proves either two things, Detroit is a bigger threat than the last two months of the season indicated OR teams that play to get one point every night and win a lot of OT/Shootouts are not nearly as good as their regular point season total suggests. With a week off to get players healthy, the Wings may be the most dangerous team in the West.

Nashville Predators: If Winston Churchill was a hockey analyst he would describe Barry Trotz coaching success this way, “Never in the history of the NHL has one man done so much, with so little, so consistently.” The Preds leading scorer in the regular season is a defenseman. Aside from Mike Fischer there isn’t one forward who would crack the first two lines of any remaining playoff team. Despite financial limitations, Nashville survives and flourishes through draft picks and shrewd player transactions. This is a blue collar franchise that deserved to advance in the playoffs for the first time in team history. Plus having Carrie Underwood in the stands for every game is a good thing for hockey too.

San Jose Sharks: In 1982, the Los Angeles Kings pulled off the greatest comeback (score-wise) in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs, overcoming a 5-0 deficit to defeat the Wayne Gretzky led Edmonton Oilers 6-5 in an overtime game dubbed the “Miracle on Manchester”. Fast forward to Game 3 of the 2011 playoffs when San Jose wrote their own comeback history, the “Stampede at Staples”, as they stormed back from a 4-0 2nd period thrashing to beat the Kings 6-5 in OT and maybe change their franchise’s putrid playoff fortunes.  The Sharks big names finally provided the biggest goals as Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Joe Thornton all provided game winners in three separate OT classics. If the Sharks fulfill their destiny and win the Cup, they can point back to the 2nd period of Game 3 as their galvanizing moment. It was the point in time where the NHL’s Sleeping Giant finally awoke.

Eastern Conference:

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
For Stars fans it is difficult to watch the playoffs from the sidelines again but there are two teams eliminated from the Eastern Conference that should catch the attention of the Dallas faithful for two very different reasons:

New York Rangers: The reason for the first round exit was not All-Star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist or a young, talented D-Corp that tried to hit every blur of speed that was a Capitals forward or throw a body in front of the shot barrage that is the Washington offense. The problem was NO OFFENSE, 1 for 20 on the power play in the series, including 0-7 during the crucial 2OT loss in game 4, and a total of 8 goals scored for the entire 5 game series. The Rangers are several million dollars under the salary cap and have owners with some of the deepest pockets in the NHL. Where can they go to find an offensive game changer who will immediately upgrade their power play and not cost anything in return to the team he is leaving? Someone please cancel Brad Richards mobile phone plan and email. 

Buffalo Sabres: For Dallas fans this is the role model for where you want the franchise to be next year at this time.  A world class goalie, Ryan Miller is the backbone of team, Kari Lehtonen has the tools to do the same.  An exciting seven game playoff battle has energized the fan base and created a buzz within the city. Yes, it is a different world in Buffalo but after a 3 year absence Dallas could become Cup Crazy again. Most importantly, the Sabres have a new owner (Terry Pegula) with a large budget and the passion to see his team win on a consistent basis.  This piece to the Stars puzzle remains to be negotiated but is needed desperately.  If the 2012 Stars can be where the 2011 Sabres are right now, then the ship has indeed been righted and heading toward a great future.

As for the survivors…..

Boston Bruins: For matters of full disclosure, it should be known that I hate the Boston Bruins. Maybe it’s because my first hockey memory as a fan was ruined by the Bruins beating the Rangers for the Stanley Cup in 1972. Or seven years later watching the Bruins climb over the glass at MSG and beat the snot out of every fan in a three section area. (Note to Detroit Piston fans: Ron Artest going into the stands is like a visit from the Muppets compared to Terry O’Reilly and friends) Or maybe it’s because every time I watch the Bruins now, their team is extolled as candidates for sainthood while the opposition is full of cheap shot artists, divers, thugs, and rats. But even the most ardent Bruin hater had to wonder if game #7 was the newest version  of a horror classic. The year was 1979, Boston-Montreal Game 7, the Bruins with a one goal lead late in the game get called for too many men on the ice, The most hated Canadien in Boston, Guy LaFluer scores on the power play to send the game to OT. The Habs dominate the extra period and win, breaking hearts all over New England. For the 2011 remake, this game is in Boston.  Home team with a one goal lead in the 3rd when a late penalty is called (high sticking) The most hated Canadien, and perhaps most hated NHL rookie ever, PK Subban scores to send the game to OT. Montreal applies immediate pressure but (Spoiler Alert) this remake has a different ending. Nathan Horton blasts the biscuit past the remarkable Carey Price and Boston wins. It is the 2nd OT winner from Horton and the 2nd series this year where a team wins three times in OT. Tim Thomas made the huge saves when needed. Boston has learned from last year’s playoff collapse. They will not be an easy out for anyone remaining in the playoffs.

Washington Capitals: The team with the most talent in the East played up to potential. With the new team commitment to the defensive end of the ice and an explosive group of forwards, all the Caps need is solid, not necessarily spectacular goaltending to advance to the finals. HOWEVER, I would love to take up a collection to allow HBO to perform another 24/7 with Bruce Boudreau for the rest of the playoffs. It would be pure greatness.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Another 7 game thriller with plot arcs no one could predict. Tampa claws back from a 3-1 game deficit winning two on the road in the process.. Tampa’s goalie Dwayne Roloson (41) is older than his Head Coach, Guy Boucher (39) but gave up only 4 goals in the final 180 minutes of play. The Bolts won the final two games without getting a goal from Steve Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, or Vincent Lecavalier. Playing without Crosby and Malkin finally caught up to the Penguins. 1 goal in 35 power play attempts including the final 1:30 of the decisive game spelled the end for Dan Bylsma’s group of overachievers. Tampa’s last playoff series win was also a 7 game affair, the 2004 Stanley Cup final.

Philadelphia Flyers: Sergie Bobrovsky plays poorly, in skates Brain Boucher to save the day. Then it’s Michael Leighton’s turn to get the net, only to hand it back to Boucher in time to save Game 6 and backstop a resounding Game 7 victory over the determined Sabres. No way Philly can win the next series if they keep using more relievers than the baseball team up the street. One interesting sidebar, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff repeatedly claimed the “Broad Street Bullies” were whining during their series. How the team image has changed over the years. Between  revolving goaltenders and whining accusations, Bernie Parent and Dave Schultz are hiding their heads in disbelief and shame. Yet if this team finds a solid netminder their matchup with Boston could be a classic. Just like almost every series we have seen so far.

Hill Street Blues, ER, The Wire are some of the greatest programs in TV history but even their group of writers could not have plotted a script like we have witnessed during the postseason. No reason to set the DVR for the NHL’s version of primetime programming. Stay up late, lose sleep and enjoy the action.  Bring on the second round. This is one show that simply cannot be missed.

Bruce LeVine is the post-game co-host for Dallas Stars road games on Sports Radio 1310 The Ticket.  Email Bruce at blevine@grandecom.net





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