Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sideline Seats

As the puck drops on the Conference finals, don’t mind me if I don’t quite know what to do. For the first time since June 2008, NHL hockey is being played and the Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t in on it. I feel lost.

Don’t get me wrong, no one should feel even the slightest bit sorry for me. Eleven months ago my boyhood team raised the Stanley Cup for the first time that it really ever meant anything to me. I am completely undeserving of sympathy, this I know. And yet here I am, maybe “struggling to find new meaning in the NHL postseason” is an over-dramatic way of putting it, but at the very least "settling into this new perspective".

The Montreal Canadiens v. Philadelphia Flyers series is a complete no-win situation for me. It’s bound to give me ulcers. I’ve looked at it from every possible perspective, playing out each scenario like the computer playing Tic-Tac-Toe in WarGames, and come to the conclusion that the only way to win is to not play the game.

So let’s start out West.

Repeating the story on the San Jose Sharks seems pointless. We all know the backstory. They have become so synonymous with playoff choking that when the President trophy winning Washington Capitals lost their opening round series to the Habs I mockingly called them “San Jose East”.

And, yes, I don’t know who coined the phrase “What goes around comes around”, but I genuinely despise that person.

The Sharks well-earned reputation for not being able to win the big games reminds me of pre-Super Bowl XLI Peyton Manning. But then 2007 came around for Manning, he finally did what Marino had never done, and he shook that “chocker” tag that had been draped around his neck.

Of course, he proceeded to get knocked out of the NFL playoffs by the rival San Diego Chargers in their opening games in 2008 and 2009, and then just this past February led the Colts to just 17 points in their Super Bowl loss to the New Orleans Saints. And yet, deservedly or not, that reputation is gone because he won the big game. That’s what the Sharks are playing for. A shot at redemption.

Can San Jose pull it off? They are certainly capable of it. Will they? I imagine just about every hockey prognosticator has been burned by past Sharks playoff performances. No one can be blamed for picking against them. Especially with the Chicago Blackhawks primed to make good on the promise they showed in their run to the ’09 Conference Finals. The Sharks could put together a solid series and not advance.

After all, let us not forget that with the offseason commitment to the Indian by transient star winger Marian Hossa, the Hawks have to make it on for Hossa to extend his consecutive Cu p Finals lost streak to three.

Regardless, it should be a great series. Without taking anything away from the two teams out East, I think we are looking at the best series we’ll see this postseason. We didn’t get the Penguins v. Capitals showdown that had Versus and NBC salivating, but we got a hell of a match-up. The more established really good team, with key players aging and heading towards free agency, making what should be one of their last attempts at greatness, at least in their current incarnation. And an up-an-coming team, revitalizing a once proud hockey town fallen upon hard times, and looking to go the distance after falling 3 wins short of a Cup appearance last May.

Back in the East, I believe I earlier made a comparison between it and nuclear holocaust. The Montreal Canadiens having eliminated my Penguins in the second round, and the Philadelphia Flyers being the Penguins archenemy. I’d say it’s like Vader v. Drago, but at least those two film characters had some redeeming qualities by the end of Return of the Jedi/Rockey IV.

To just call the Eastern Conference a mess does a grave disservice to the situation. The only time a higher seed has advanced in the East this postseason was the fourth seeded Penguins beating the Ottawa Senators in the opening round.

We have a number seven seed Flyers that started five different goalies during the regular season, three of whom played more than 25 games. Three tenders have seen postseason time. Picked off the waiver wire in December, Michael Leighton, who replaced Ray Emery before being replaced by Brian Boucher, now replaces Boucher to try and lead Philly to the Cup Finals.

Forget that the rest of the team is a powerhouse that flirts with juggernaut status when Daniel Briere is contributing. They were down three games to none to Boston before storming back and winning it in seven games. I have no clue what to make of this team. They might be Cam Ward and the 2005 Carolina Hurricanes. They might be Johan Hedberg and the 2001 Penguins.

Now the Habs, I know exactly what to make of them. Though I’m hesitant to say, lest I get tagged as a bitter sore loser. But in the famous words of Admiral Ackbar of the Rebel Alliance, “It’s a trap!”

I know it’s more than that. I know that Halak has been masterful. I know the Habs have made him look absolutely Patrick Roy-esque by limiting opponents to long-distance shots. I know Michael Cammalleri has outplayed both Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. But let’s just call a spade and spade, they play the trap. And that scares the hell out of me.

To what extent the trap is back and to what end, who is to say. But if you aren’t thinking about the 1995 New Jersey Devils and getting just a touch concerned about the future of the game, well than you probably aren’t an alarmist. But I am.

And a bitter one at that.

Eventually I’ll get completely settled in to my sideline seats for the rest of the postseason. I’ll try and enjoy it, because after that it’s all Pirates baseball – they should have their 17th consecutive losing season wrapped up by mid-August – followed by Steelers football – led by serial (alleged) rapist Ben Roethlisberger.

Wait … when does the puck drop on the Penguins 2010-11season?

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