As compelling and as testy as the last fortnight has been, even drawing in some casual fans who normally do not follow the sport, it all comes to an end at some point tonight.
Bruins v. Canucks – Game 7.
For one franchise, four decades of frustration is going to result in long overdue jubilation, while another is about to experience the ultimate gut-punch.
As Jim Rome has said on the radio a few times during the playoff season, you might be one of the many in the U.S. who wish not to be converted onto the game, but nothing is like Game Seven in the National Hockey League.
In one of the great traditions in all of sports, all combatants on both sides will line up for the traditional handshake line when all is said and done. Barring injury, Alexandre Burrows will have to reach for the hand he bit earlier in the series.
Yes, I did mention the possibility of injury. The brutal side of the sport has, not surprisingly, reared its head in the previous six games. Boston’s Nathan Horton went off with a severe concussion while Vancouver’s Mason Raymond is now out with a fractured vertebrae. The attrition toll on both sides underscores the problem the NHL has in keeping its players from being susceptible to serious injury.
As dangerous a game as pro football can be, hockey has many of the same elements, except the players are traveling much faster on razor sharp skates (slashes from which are another danger) while holding sticks and blocking shots from a rock-hard puck. There is also no out of bounds marker, just unforgiving dasher boards.
And including playoffs, NFL teams play a maximum of 20 games. The Bruins and Canucks will be playing their 107th game of the season on Wednesday, and opening night of the 2011-12 season is a mere 3 ½ months away.
The game remains beloved though, especially in Canada where it is that nation’s equivalent to the NFL. And some of the most memorable moments of the series have been the anthem singers. Both Rene Rancourt and Vancouver counterpart Mark Donnelly are both a perfect 3-0 on the series. Smart money says Mr. Donnelly cues the fans to sing the entire chorus of Oh Canada tonight. The fans will not let him down, and it will be so loud that it will wind up being heard in Seattle.
If FOX still had the U.S. broadcast rights to hockey, we would still be subjected to glowing pucks, along with American Idol contestants and members of the cast of Glee stumbling through the anthems. The anthem is another portion of the event that just does not get replicated in other sports (and supposedly-patriotic NASCAR regularly misses that mark badly, though that’s another story).
And then there are the teams. The Vancouver Canucks are rewarded for having the best regular season record by hosting Game 7, and they have not yet squandered their best chance at finally scoring the elusive Stanley Cup. But it has not been for lack of trying. The team blew a three games to none lead versus the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1 before saving themselves with an overtime goal in Game Seven of that series.
And then there are the three horrific losses in Boston, which have resulted in Vancouver being on the negative end of a 19-8 aggregate count for the series. In fact, for the entire playoffs Vancouver has been outscored 65-58. Alleged franchise net-minder Roberto Luongo has been far from that title several times over the past two months, but he has also come up big at other times and has two 1-0 wins in this series. And if tonight is Luongo’s biggest game ever in the Vancouver arena, it won’t be by much. Luongo got the tap of the pads for Team Canada against the United States in the Gold Medal game of the 2010 Olympics. Roberto ultimately got the win, but not before allowing a game-tying goal with 25 seconds remaining in regulation before Sidney Crosby bailed Canada out with the overtime-game winner. Luongo’s legacy remains shaky, pending how he performs tonight.
Then there is Boston’s Tim Thomas, who is the odds-on favorite to skate off with the Smythe Trophy for Most Valuable Player of the playoffs, win or lose. Upset with Max Lapierre’s celebration after scoring the lone goal of Game 5, T-Squared set the tone from Game Six by breaking the unwritten rule of hockey etiquette by firing a puck towards the Vancouver net as he came onto the ice for pre-game warm-ups, firing up his teammates in the process.
One of the most awkward moments in sports is when the Conn Smythe trophy is awarded to a member of the losing team. Unlike when the teams win their conference trophies (hockey tradition dictates that no player touches that when awarded, as doing so would signify that the team is already happy with it’s season, even without winning Stanley), a playoff MVP winner does skate off with the trophy and a ton of applause, but also with a frown.
So it comes down to this after one more 2,500 flight between the two clubs (think the Canucks aren’t glad the NHL hasn’t adopted the NBA’s 2-3-2 Finals format??) Sixty minutes (and possibly much more) for two title-starved franchises contested by forty men with playoff beards that are beginning to approach Brian Wilson length.
Who will win??
I have to admit I’m pulling for the Canucks. I went to my first NHL game at the old Pacific Coliseum 25 years ago, long before the franchise started selling out every game. That was when the Canucks were still sporting their infamous black/red/gold color scheme and the product on the ice wasn’t much prettier. I was sitting in the fourth row just right at the blue line, and the home team took a 7-1 pasting that night. But I also got a small taste that night of the Canadian passion for the game. In Canada (and Boston and several other U.S. cities) the sport is almost as important as breathing. In many U.S. markets (count the recently departed Atlanta Thrashers in that group), NHL games often pass merely for a good night out.
But there are also many reasons to root for the Boston Bruins, one being 43-year old graybeard Mark Recchi, possibly playing the final game of a 23-year career.
My gut feeling is Vancouver pulls out another one-game squeaker and completes it’s 1960-circa Pittsburgh Pirates run to the title, even though Boston has clearly demonstrated itself as the better and more determined team. If you watch just one hockey game, you just might want to strap yourself in for three hours (possibly more). And even stay up late overtime if need be. No one does Game Seven like the NHL, and nothing is more dramatic than Stanley Cup, Game Seven, SUDDEN DEATH OVERTIME.
Enjoy the game, and have at it boys.