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Barn-burner finals prove NHL still has capacity for greatness

The rip-roaring theatre of it all rather resembles something borrowed from a grand finale of one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s lustier and more outlandish light operatic productions.

Two beefy characters impeccably attired in tight-fitting dinner jackets and wearing spotless white gloves sashay in perfect lockstep down a ramp to the spreading ice surface clutching between them a large, many-tiered, 35-pound thing made of the purest silver and scarred with the etchings of many names and dates.

To the tune of a baying mob borne on the wings of an arcane tradition, it is time again to confer Lord Stanley’s battered and 116-year-old Cup. I tell you there is no better moment, year in and year out, in all of sport.

Which, by the way, I no longer insist upon. For a time there was a determination in this corner to proselytize on behalf of the game of hockey by fiercely promoting the charms of this rigidly Old Testament game. The indifference all of that inspired was depressing. And so I’ve given up on that lame effort, many of you will be happy to hear. That it’s a lost cause is abundantly and finally clear. Even to me.

Not that I no longer find professional hockey’s failure to grip our sports-nutty culture to be fairly mystifying. Given the junk we pine over and the over-priced, under-handed, and entirely unworthy characters from the other games that we raise to secular sainthood the casual disdain routinely visited upon this tough, honest, grueling, genuine, and deeply authentic game is more offensive than ever.

But the majority holds sway in our alleged cultural democracy. Vox populi rules supreme. On television, hockey’s ratings stink, which allows the print media to take a pass. With much of its best fare hidden on an obscure and fledgling cable outlet that few have ever heard of and fewer still can even find, yet another Stanley Cup festival has come and gone while registering nary a blip. If they hold a tourney and the Neilsons don’t even quiver, did anything actually happen?

You ought not object if the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings politely snarl at that notion. They have just staged one of the best NHL showdowns in recent memory; a sustained gem of a barnburner over the last five games culminating in a seventh game of exquisite, sudden-death melodrama that made the basketball finale in the arch-rival NBA look plodding, dull, and completely one-sided.

On the level of art, it was a smackdown for the NHL. On the level of commercial success — the yardstick that all the governing wiseguys in the industry of sport most honor — it was another runaway for the NBA. But then it’s a free country and there is hardly a more fundamental liberty than the right to choose which silly game you favor and which dumb team you are willing to live and die for. Nonetheless it gives one distinct pleasure to inform the vast majority of how much they have missed.

What the Penguins accomplished is fairly stunning. They have denied the Red Wings — four-time winners over the last decade and one of the finest organizations in all of sport — a legitimate claim to dynasty. They did so despite losing the first two games of the Finals, becoming only the fourth team in NHL history to do that. And they did so by winning the titanic seventh game on enemy ice.

If that does not seem like such a big deal, consider this. Since 1979 there had been 18 seventh game championship finales in the sports of baseball, basketball, and hockey combined and every single one of them had been won by the home team. Now you know why teams are so obsessed with home field or court or ice advantage.

The last time a title was clinched on the road was when the ‘We are Family’ Pittsburgh Pirates led by Willie Stargell stunned Earl Weaver’s too cocky Baltimore Orioles in the shivering World Series of 1979 that almost got upstaged by a snow storm.

The last time it was done in the NHL was when (naturally) the Montreal Canadiens, led by Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard and a lanky upstart of a goalie named Ken Dryden, schocked the Bobby Hull & Stan Mikita Chicago Blackhawks in 1971.

That was the year the fabled Big Bad Bruins, quarterbacked by the immortal Orr, broke every scoring record in the game’s history only to get bushwhacked by Dryden in the semi-finals with the final game of that round also being won by the Habs on the road, in the dear old Boston Garden. Having been there, I can assure you it may have been the most painful defeat in the Bruins entire history and the saddest crowd ever to grace the dear old barn. While it seems like only yesterday, that was 38 years ago. If statistics can be tedious that set is downright compelling.

In the end, the Penguins won because with younger legs and more sharpshooters they were able to overhaul what may have been the smartest hockey team ever assembled. It was sad in a way because Detroit is a superb hockey town in a depressed region that was savoring the boost in morale the Cup promised. Moreover, these Red Wings, with their iron core of laconic and classy Swedish stars, were admirable to the last. Watching these guys move the puck up ice can be almost like watching the Bolshoi do its thing. They raise the mere passing of the puck to the level of art.

But the Pens had more fire power, with four lines that can exert heavy offensive pressure compensating nicely for an ordinary defense and they have the finest player in the game in the hyper kinetic Russian, Evgeni Malkin, and they have a pleasing new standard bearer for the game itself in the all-Canadian boy, Sid “The Kid” Crosby.

Topping it off at the very end, their under-rated goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, revealed himself to be another Horatius at the Bridge. His utterly impossible stop of a point blank bid by the Wings’ Nicklas Lidstrom with precisely two seconds left may have been the most electrifying finish to a championship contest in the history of sport. Only about ten feet out, the superb Lidstrom had near the whole net for a target only to have Fleury soar across the crease like an avenging angel to block the shot as time ran out, preserving the 2-1 classic. For something comparable in baseball you’d need a two-out, two-strike, walk-off homer rescuing a team down at least a run in the bottom of the ninth, or some such fairy tale stuff. It was hellacious.

And it’s a fabulous triumph for Mario Lemieux, the first ex-superstar to win championships as both a player and an owner in the history of fun and games. With the Penguins facing bankruptcy and veering on collapse a couple of years ago Lemieux, in a gracious act of statesmanship, accepted equity in the team as payment for several tens of millions of bucks owed to him on long deferred payments. It may look like a brilliant move now but at the time it was widely believed that he’d traded his personal fortune for a property heavily in debt and worth approximately nothing. In three years it’s been all turned around and that’s quite a coupe for Lemieux.

It couldn’t have happened to a classier act. As a player Mario attained near incomparable greatness despite two bouts with cancer and chronic back problems that left him immobilized for a spell. Like Bobby Orr, Lemieux was a dazzling performer despite huge handicaps and without ever having been fully whole and healthy. Which is why I rate Orr and Lemieux as the two greatest pure talents in the history of the sport.

What a great story this Stanley Cup windup was; maybe even one for the ages. Such a pity that so many missed it.

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