Everybody has had a defining moment when they've become a fan. Whether it's rooting for your favorite team, or enjoying the elements of the game by being an impartial observer. Some sports, some sporting events, and some teams just have a way about them that attracts viewership. It's why we as fans watch, night in and night out, one team or one league or all of them at once. The connection can all be linked to one moment that really opened their eyes and made them think or say or express, I want more of this.
Yet in a culture with an unfathomable amount of resources and outlets for information, from social media to blogs to sites that are literally comprised of only tables and graphs and in-depth analysis, the people that had their moment of sports clarity later in life are inexplicably shunned. Not to say there aren't great sports towns, because those do exist--larger hubs like Atlanta come to mind, because they lack a strong sports history and are comprised heavily of transplants.
But there's a reaction that many hockey fans get when the idea of a bandwagon fan comes up. This sense of seniority and entitlement that radiate from the same people that complain about ESPN not caring about hockey, and support #PleaseLikeMySport. Do you want new fans to help grow and support the game? Or does that wish lose validity if the people supporting it haven't sweat and bled for their one true team, through good and through bad, since birth?
I'm not familiar with this sport, but I'd like to learn about it. What team should I choose? Ah yes, this one that loses all the time.— Jen LC (@RegressedPDO) June 1, 2015
And the Bruins aren't exempt from this behavior, albeit in a much more playful manner. When the Bolts and Bruins met in the Eastern Conference Finals back in 2011, Boston released a whole marketing campaign that poked fun at Tampa Bay's fanbase. Most jokes took shots at the age group, with mentions of grandchildren and shuffleboards. But the one immediately outside of the North Station entrance essentially stated that true Tampa Bay fans were a thing of myth.
Tampa would pay the Bruins back this past year during a drubbing at Amalie Arena, suggesting Boston would too jump ship to a better team, which is all in the nature of the sport. Hell, the crew running the Dallas Star's jumbotron has made a killing, trolling on everything from teams to cities to the fans themselves. But there's a clear difference between pandering to your own fans at the expense of an opponent, and wanting to exclude groups of people that are new and interested in your largely-Canadian, vastly-complex sport.
Which is why we won't. See we're also here as third-party observers, who appreciate the sport and the two fantastic teams that are left playing for one of the best trophies on the planet. So we want to fill you in on why this great series will be enjoyable to more than just the "bandwagon fans" out there.
Chicago is the Best Dynasty in a Generation
One win in the series would give the Blackhawks 70 wins in the postseason over the last seven years. Only the Islanders of the early '80s, Oilers of the late '80s, and Avalanche of the late '90s have accomplished such a feat since the Miracle on Ice. They would be the first team to do so in thirteen years, the first franchise to hit that mark since the first Spider-Man movie came out. Yes, the one with Tobey Maguire and that god-awful Chad Kroeger song. Despite not winning back-to-back Cups, they'd become the first team to win three Cups in six years since Detroit did it from '96-'97 to '01-'02.
It should also be noted that teams like the Islanders, Oilers, and Red Wings were built much differently. No team has won more than two Cups since the salary cap was instated after the 2004-05 NHL lockout. A few teams have succeeded once, and faded into oblivion. The '06 Hurricanes, the '07 Ducks. Others have challenged ever-so-closely after their first, most recently the 2013 Bruins. Chicago is already one of those repeat champions, winning both of their previous Finals series 4-2, and are now trying to be the first franchise in over a decade to raise a third.
What Chicago has done is build a blueprint that is painfully obvious but excruciatingly hard to recreate. Over half of their roster is pulled directly from the draft--Toews, Kane, Crawford, Bickell, Shaw, Keith, Seabrook, Saad. Nearly every impact player on the team was drafted by the franchise. The core. The supporting cast was acquired via trades & free agency--Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards. The evaluation of talent both within and outside the organization has been impeccable, and spans both veterans and prospects. Whether before their prime, in their prime, or past their prime, the entire team is contributing. Saad, 22. Shaw, 23. Toews & Kane, 26. Seabrook, 29. Keith, 31. Hossa, 36. The game they play fits the roster they put together, and it's equally effective whether a player was drafted in 2012 or 1997. Tampa Bay may have put together a team capable of being the next dynasty. But first they must dethrone the current one, and the Blackhawks show no signs of slowing down.
Stamkos vs. Kane Could Be the Next Bird vs. Magic
Steven Stamkos and Patrick Kane are two of the best pure shots in the game. Both forwards are sheer assassins with a stick in their hands. Since 2010, no one has a higher G60--goals per 60 minutes played--than Steven Stamkos (1.76 in all situations on the ice). In Points60, Stamkos is 3rd in the league over that same span, behind only Crosby and Malkin. He's finished out of the Top 5 in league just once, and that was last season due to injury. Meanwhile, Patrick Kane--5th in Points60 since 2010--was the leading candidate for the Art Ross before going down late in the season, and has 47 goals in the postseason since coming into the league back in 2008-09. Forty-seven goals, more than everyone else in the league over that timespan.
The link to Bird vs. Magic is due to the differences in playing style. Both skaters are equally effective at scoring & creating goals while playing the game much differently. Stamkos carries the play, and often skates from the outside-in, using his speed along the boards before shooting from the wall or crashing towards the net. The majority of his goals come from the edges of the invisible triangle that is created by the goal crease and the faceoff dots. Kane, on the other hand skates from the inside-out. He'll speed down the middle of the ice, awaiting centering passes, and will circle along the corners if the play continues, floating back towards the middle before eventually receiving the puck in the slot. He scores primarily along the edges of the circle, below the dots but still in the slot. And his release on the backhand is so quick and effortless, you often don't even see his goals go in.
Among all the star-power on both sides of this matchup, Stamkos vs. Kane is the duel we'll look to the most. Stamkos is the heart & soul of the Lightning team, carrying the offense and wearing the Captain's C on his sweater, and the largest remaining member from the 2010 team that took the Boston Bruins to a Game 7, in which he came back from a slapshot to the face, missing only two shifts. Kane is a clutch playoff performer who shines in the biggest moments. He has 111 points in 110 postseason games. He has 14 points in his last 5 games facing elimination.
If the NHL truly wants marquee matchups like Crosby vs. Ovechkin gracing the television on a nightly basis, they couldn't have asked for a more entertaining bout than these two perennial goal-scorers. Neither Larry Bird nor Magic Johnson ever won a scoring title in the NBA. But when the moment came, they struck fear into their opponents, and took home a collective 6 MVPs. Likewise, with the game on the line, there's perhaps no one on either team you fear more with the puck than Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos. Showtime.
Experience vs. the Youth Movement
Tampa Bay is the 7th-youngest team in the NHL. Chicago is the 7th-oldest team in the NHL. A whopping 16 players remain on the Blackhawks from their 2013 Championship team, and 8 from the 2010 team before that. Only a mere 2 players remain from Tampa Bay's Eastern Conference finalists back in 2011. Yet the way they were built is so similar, it has many seeing Tampa Bay as the next dynasty in the league.
Of their top-ten point-scorers during the regular season, seven are 25 or younger. Stamkos won't turn 26 until next February. Tyler Johnson had 72 points in his sophomore stint, breaking through as a young stud. He now leads all players in postseason points, helped by his 12 goals, 4 of which were game-winners. His linemate Nikita Kucherov, a late 2nd-round pick, was one goal shy of 30 during the regular season, and is 4th in points during the postseason. The third triplet is Ondrej Palat, who scored 4 goals against the Rangers, including the series-clincher late in the 3rd period. Palat was a 7th-round pick, finishing 2nd in Calder Trophy voting last year. Victor Hedman is slowly becoming one of the league's elite defencemen at just 24, able to use his size to shut down forwards, and his quickness to carry the puck so smoothly through the neutral zone. And yet all these guys have played an average of 31 playoff games in their career.
The Blackhawks on the other hand have 69 wins since the 2009 postseason. While Tampa has won three playoff series on their current run, most of the Blackhawks roster had previously won three playoff series before the year even started. They know playoff pressure, the spotlight of a Cup Finals. They know overtimes, double-overtimes, triple-overtimes. This team as currently constituted played the longest game in franchise history. They know how to face adversity, coming back from series deficits. Down 3-2 to the Ducks. Down 2-1 to the Bruins. Down 3-1 to the Red Wings. Rarely do you watch a Hawks game in May or June and see them simply not show up.
So what does this mean for the series? Well, in recent years the team who was won the Cup made at deep run the previous season. With the exception of the 2012 Kings, every team since the 2008 Red Wings made it to at least the Conference Semi-Finals the year prior. Tampa Bay was bounced in the Conference Quarter-Finals last year, not winning a single game. Then again, it was extenuating circumstances, with Ben Bishop--the best goaltender this postseason--missing all four games of their sweep. Bishop hadn't played a postseason game before this April, and yet he is the only goaltender to post shutouts on the road in Game 5 and Game 7 of a single series, and is one of just three goaltenders to post two Game 7 shutouts in a single postseason.
So while experience typically wins out in the postseason, the Lightning aren't your typical inexperienced team.
Tampa is on an Unprecedented All-Original-6 Run
This is one of those facts that is made for the Old Time Hockey fans, but can be appreciated by all. Tampa Bay has made their way through the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Rangers, it taking 20 games to do so. No team in league history has played more than 25 games in the postseason and won the Cup, and the league made every round a seven-game series all the way back in 1987. Only two teams won the Cup in 25 games--the 2006 Hurricanes and 2011 Bruins. And unless Tampa somehow ousts the Hawks in a mere five games, the Bolts will have to make history if they want to hoist Lord Stanley.
A team has also never gone through four different Original Six teams to win the Cup. The last time anyone came close, it was in 1979 when the Montreal Canadiens bowled over the Rangers, Bruins and Maple Leafs. But those playoffs were only three rounds, and the Canadiens weren't required to play in the prelims. Tampa Bay would make history. One of the newest franchise, knocking down the oldest in the entire league on their way. A small market, ending the seasons of so many huge, hopeful, diehard hockey markets. Truly, it's something historians of the game can appreciate.
The Conn Smythe is Completely Up for Grabs
Steven Stamkos has 17 points in the postseason. Nikita Kucherov has 19. In between them, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, both at 18. Above them, Patrice Kane at 20. Leading the pack is Tyler Johnson at 21. And that's before we even mention Ben Bishop's 12 wins and 3 shutouts. The race for the playoff's most valuable player is incredibly competitive, and a case can be made for nearly anyone. Without Bishop's Game 7 shutouts, the Lightning don't make it out of the first round. With Toews' goals, they're out and the Ducks are in. Stamkos shut the door on the Canadiens in Game 6. The Wild never even got to the door, partly due to Kane's 5 goals in 4 games.
What in part makes this series so enthralling is the idea that anyone could win. And the same truth stands for the Conn Smythe. There's no Evgeni Malkin, with a ridiculous 36 points. There's no Tim Thomas, flailing around in the crease somehow stopping everything in sight. No Hank Zetterberg, or Jean-Sebastien Giguere. These two teams have made it this far as a team, a collective unit, on the backs of all their biggest and best players.
You may see a Finals where a guy traded for Cory Conacher wins the playoff MVP. If either Kane or Toews won, they'd be the first repeat Conn Smythe winner since Patrick Roy thirteen years ago. Tyler Johnson would be the first undrafted player to win it since Wayne Gretzky. Duncan Keith could be the first defenseman to take home the award in nearly a decade. So much potential to tap into, and literally anyone can take the series. The biggest stars on the biggest stage, with infinite possibilities for legends to be made.
It's an overture for the sport. The reason why so many consider this to be the greatest sports tournament in the world. Why the Cup is heralded as the greatest prize in all of sports. Mike "Doc" Emrick summed it up perfectly last year, when he said They do it all for a trophy they can't keep & a ring that is so big, they only wear it a few times, but nobody seems to mind. And that is why. That is why fans of new & old, fans of near & far, watch the game.
Now. Who's ready for puck drop?