STANLEY CUP FINAL 2002 - PREVIEW

 

West meets the East Ė and the puck stops here!

ÖAnd then there were two. Here it is folks, the cream of the crop, the Stanley Cup Final series. This is the end all be all best of seven winner takes all series. This is why we played eighty-two regular season games and four playoff rounds. The best of the best will be showcased here. Based on what weíve seen so far this playoff year, can the final possibly live up to the hype? Of course it can!

DETROIT vs CAROLINA

Was that an emphatic game seven blowout or what? After game seven of the Colorado/Detroit series, there was an Internet poll that came out on TSN that begged the question which was worse: Patrick Roy giving up nine goals to Detroit in his final game as a member of the Montreal Canadiens or Roy giving up seven goals in to Detroit in game seven of the Conference final? The majority went for the latter. The turning point for Detroit was capitalizing on Roy hot-dogging the puck in game six. He just never seemed to recover after that, and the red-hot Wings simply buffaloed the Avalanche and never looked back.

Somehow everybody knew that Detroit would be here. From the big free agent signings of last off-season of Hasek, Hull and Robitaille, to the runaway fifty one win one hundred sixteen point regular season, to coming back from a two games to none deficit against Vancouver, to a five game almost perfect series against St. Louis, all capped off with another classic series against Colorado, this one going the distance needing seven games to decide. Yes, Detroit was expected all season long to be in this position in June, and they definitely didnít disappoint!

A lot has been made about the fact there are so many prolific players on this team. A lot of people argue Detroit has spared no expense to essentially try to buy the Stanley Cup. Sure, theyíve spared no expense, but hold on just a second here. There were times in this playoff season when they faced plenty of adversity and could easily have been on the sidelines instead of heading to the final. What if Vancouver had managed to complete the upset in round one? The proverbial eighth vs first upset happened in the East, why not in the West? What if the 6-1 blowout in favor of St. Louis had become a rallying point for the Blues? What if Patrick Roy had not let in that bad goal during Game Six of the conference final series? As has been said many times before, sure itís one thing to have and be able to afford the high profile players, but as many teams will tell you, New York Rangers, Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers excluded, nothing is guaranteed until you execute. Of course, a little luck now and again canít hurt either!

So, what can we expect in the crŤme de la crŤme of hockey? I think this next series is going to be a lot closer than everybody thinks. Only thing I would concern myself with if I were the Detroit Red Wings would be get it done, get it over with early. Otherwise, look out!

The Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers are in the finals for the first time ever, and it is no fluke that they are here. They beat three very good and capable teams to make it here. Nobody gave them a chance. The East Rutherford alligators were writing R.I.P. Carolina in the mud that surrounds the Continental Airlines Arena. Everybody in Montreal was writing Cinderella part twenty five and the Forum Ghosts played their part to perfection, they just ended up getting cancelled at dress rehearsal. They practically had the Stanley Cup parade all but planned in Maple Leaf land, but there turned out to be a riot instead (actually Iím kidding about the riot, but it wouldnít have surprised me!).

I personally never ever would have guessed Toronto would lose every home game in the Carolina series. Well, they almost didnít. Donít forget, two of those Carolina road wins were in overtime. I had mentioned at the outset of the playoffs Carolina could end up having their most interesting season in their franchise history if they could ignore the critics of the playoff seeding system and play patient hockey. Well how does a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals suit them?

If you would have told me at the beginning of the season I could bet on the Hurricanes being here, I could be a very rich man today. Vegas odds were 40 to 1 for Carolina to win the Stanley Cup at the beginning of the season. The first thing I wouldíve told you is youíre crazy, no way, itíll never happen. Well I wouldíve been eating a lot of crow now, but then again Iím no gambler!

This yearís spring classic features some very intriguing matchups. You have veteran leadership with Steve Yzerman against Ron Francis, two fellows who have been here before and have both won. Then you have the fine veterans that have either been here before but were on the losing end like Luc Robitaille, Martin Gelinas, Chris Chelios and Rod BrindíAmour. You have some folks getting their first exciting taste of what itís like to play for the cup in Eric Cole, Josef Vasicek, Jeff OíNeill and Pavel Datsyuk. Defense is rock solid, with more veteran leadership like Chelios, Steve Duchesne, Nicklas Lidstrom, Aaron Ward, Glen Wesley, Sean Hill. Finally, we have the Goalie Duel: Hasek vs Irbe. The edge here goes to Hasek. Heís been here before, and this time he has Hull on his side rather than in his crease. Not only that, he did what Patrick Lalime couldnít, he now holds sole possession of the playoff record for shutouts with five.

The key in this series for Detroit will be simple, get to Irbe early and often. Get in the face of the gritty Carolina forwards and defense. Theyíll have to break through the clutch and grab neutral zone trapping style that has become the norm in the Eastern Conference. Above all else, settle the score in regulation time. The Hurricanesí overtime record has been unreal throughout the playoffs.

For the Hurricanes to capture their first ever Stanley Cup, they will have to continue to do everything that has propelled them this far, only much better. Irbe will have to stand on his head. Carolinaís best players will have to be their best players and score early and score often. But letís be realistic here, they may have stormed their way through the East but they are going to have to come up with a lot more offense than they came up with in the Toronto series. What happened to Cole? For some reason they seem to have left all of their offense in game six of the Montreal series.

This just in from Michiganís weather authority: while this storm is imminent in Octopus Land, they are looking to downgrade it to mere tropical depression status before long.

Prediction: Red Wings in five, to win their third Stanley Cup since 1997

SO WHAT NOW?

Once the Stanley Cup has been awarded, what then?

Plenty!!

The Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe trophy will be awarded the same night, with Lord Stanleyís mug of course going to the winning team of the best of seven final series and the Conn Smythe going to the MVP of the playoffs. This is voted on strictly by the hockey writers and broadcasters of the world. If I had a vote, Iíd go with Steve Yzerman, no ifs, ands or buts. Iíve been impressed with Steve before, but this year Iíve been most impressed with not only his play, but his perseverance. This man was born to play hockey, no question about it. Prior to the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Yzerman underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee. This happened not even three weeks prior to the Mensí Hockey tournament, but did this stop him from representing his country? No way! There he was, racking up the points for Canada, truly an inspiration for hockey fans worldwide, and instrumental in helping Canada win the Gold Medal. But the heroics didnít end there. Sure, Yzerman took a bit of a rest down the stretch to gear up for the playoffs, but once they were in full gear, so was he. Thereís no question heís been hurting in the playoffs. That knee of his is nowhere near 100% and will require surgery again in the offseason. But again, there he is, out there on the ice, taking hits, delivering hits, scoring the timely goal when his team needs it, being the captain that any team would love to have (too bad he has a no trade clause in his contract, putting any rumors of him signing with his hometown Ottawa Senators to rest). When the Stanley Cup final is finished, we will once again see Yzerman lifting the cup yet again, but this one will probably be more special because of the year that was, an Olympic Gold Medal and a Stanley Cup in the same year. Few have ever accomplished that feat.

After the post series celebrations and parades have left their mark in the hockey world, we have just a couple of days to gear up for the NHL Awards. Shortly after that weíll have the NHL Entry Draft and the yearly free agent frenzy will be open season. Iíll have a lot more to come on this next time around. Before we know it training camp will be opening again. Hockey Rules!

TICKET PRICES OUT OF CONTROL or HOW THE NHL CASHES IN ON POSTSEASON PLAY

Hockey had long been thought of as the "blue collar sport". It was one of the few remaining sports the family could still go to see without having to put a second mortgage on the house or sell their children into slavery. Unfortunately that is no longer the case.

Iíve always known the experience of the live NHL game was far superior to a TV broadcast. This isnít taking anything away from the many broadcasters out there, itís just you can get into the game a lot more when you are there and feeling the tension of the rest of the fans. Itís also a great night out with a significant other, whether they like sports or not.

Regular season games are fun, especially down the stretch when positioning becomes so important, but it doesnít compare to the intensity and breathtaking action of a playoff game. I was fortunate enough to see two this year. I saw Game 4 of the Ottawa-Philadelphia first round series and Game 3 of the Ottawa-Toronto second round series. My first playoff live experience was last year, again it was Ottawa-Toronto.

Now I know and expect prices for playoff tickets will be slightly more than a regular season game, but it is getting a little ridiculous. I paid $180 for two tickets in the first round and sat in the upper bowl of the Corel Center. Thinking I could save a little money, in the second round, I paid the same price for two tickets and ended up sitting as far back as you could sit. If you wanted better seats, forget about it, be prepared to pay $360 for seats behind the players bench. It was no wonder that Ottawa couldnít sell out during the first round. For me, it wasnít a matter of could I afford it, rather did I want to? No way. Now you might say that this is cheap when you consider that high profile sporting events like the Super Bowl or the World Series or even a Boxing fight could cost a lot more.

Checking on ticket prices for the Stanley Cup Final in Raleigh, prices ranged from $50 to $275. So if I wanted to go to Raleigh and catch one of the games Iíd have to come up with at least $100 for nosebleed section seats, tickets that Iím sure go for half that during the regular season (at least in Ottawa they do). Those that could afford tickets didnít seem to mind though, the tickets for three potential games sold out in less than one hour.

Now these prices are not even that bad if you compare them to a bigger market like Toronto or Detroit. Apparently there are still folks in Raleigh that want to attend the Stanley Cup final but canít because there are no tickets left.

In Toronto, tickets closest to the action were $500 each in the first two rounds, and $750 in the conference final! The cheapest ticket at the Air Canada Center was $100 each, and that was to watch the Leafs lose!! I wonder how much they would have been had the Leafs advanced to the final? Never mind, I donít want to know!

What Iím concerned about here is not everybody can afford to go see the big games. No longer can "the little guy" even think of taking their family to one of these games. Iím lucky in the sense that I donít have any children to worry about, but even for me to go is expensive. Itís a good thing that the games are on TV.

Is the league to blame for this? Gary Bettman says he is pleased because hockey attendance league-wide is at 90%. Give me a break. If the tickets were more affordable, that could be 98-100%. We shouldnít be looking at the playoffs as the only time an arena will sellout. I hope the league takes a long look at this so that ticket prices donít become as outrageous as football or basketball (if they arenít already), especially in the bigger markets like Toronto, Detroit or New York.

In any event, thatís it for me. Enjoy the Stanley Cup final. There will be lots more to talk about this summer. As always my door is open for your comments.

 

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