A TALE OF TWO CITIES

2007 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW

 

This is no ordinary cup.  It’s the Stanley Cup.  And only the victors of a grueling 82 game season (not to mention four physically and mentally challenging best-of-7 playoff series) have the right to have their name engraved on it.

Or something like that.

I can’t credit myself for those words of wisdom, as doing so would be considered plagiarism.  It was actually EA Sports who printed them on the back cover of their NHL 94 (or was it NHL 95?) video game back in the day, but the words ring so true today.  Quite frankly, I couldn’t have written it better myself.

Well, yet again, my friends, we are at the best time of year in all of sports, in my humble opinion.  Sure, I know baseball has the World Series, I know the NBA has the Championship, the NFL has the Super Bowl, the NCAA has March Madness – but in no other sport do we have the spectacle of the Stanley Cup, period.

I would be willing to bet, even if you’re not a fan of the sport, you could identify the trophy and identify with it long before you could explain to me what the Vincent Lombardi trophy looks like, or what the significance of the World Series trophy is.  Even if your best memory of the Stanley Cup was a segment on the Howard Stern Show after New Jersey won their first ever cup, I’m sure such a memory is more vivid that what the New England Patriots have accomplished the last few seasons.  What I also know is this, and I’ve said this many times before – no other trophy is as beautiful, and no other trophy can quite make you feel like you’re eight years old again in less time than it takes to say “ The (Insert Team Name Here) have won the Stanley Cup”.  As far as I’m aware, the Stanley Cup is the only trophy where every player, coach and manager of the winning team gets to spend an entire day with – now how special is that?

I thought I had seen and heard it all.  I’ve been writing this column now for five years and counting.  I’ve analyzed the playoffs many times over - every round, every team.   Sometimes I’ve been right, other times I’ve been wrong, but the one recurring theme has always been – there is only one cup, one champion.  Through and through, I’ve made no secret of where my personal allegiances lie, particularly last spring and the better part of this season.

I have to say – nothing could have ever prepared me for what has happened this year.

 

THE AFTERMATH OF GAME 5

Having lived in Ottawa for 17 years, even back in the days when Cyril Leeder and Bruce Firestone first put their bid in to the NHL to revive the Senators and bring the dream of the Stanley Cup back to Canada’s Capital, never in a million years would I have dreamed just 15 years later the team would be there with a chance to win it all.  Even as recently as six months ago, when the team was hovering around .500 and fans were screaming for change, never would I have imagined how fans of the team and residents of this city would react in the event the Senators actually won the Eastern Conference and ended up in the finals.  Well, exactly one week ago, I got my answer, and I have to tell you, I was thrilled with what I saw.

It was minutes after Daniel Alfredsson’s overtime goal in Game 5 eliminated the Buffalo Sabres and vaulted the Sens in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Mission accomplished – finally.  Thanks to NBC and their silly mandate to have afternoon games on weekends, I had to plan my day in reverse – watch the game, then run errands (whoever heard of no hockey on a Saturday night?)  I headed out to the grocery store and it was evident right away this wasn’t going to be an ordinary afternoon or evening – less than 30 people in a store which is usually so full in every aisle you have to practically barge your way through.  It was a treat to say the least.  After loading up the vehicle to head home is when the enthusiasm started pouring into the streets.  The horn honking was plentiful, there were people starting to take walks in the streets with Senators paraphernalia – the party was starting.  I happened to switch the CD player to the Team 1200, and they were announcing the Senators’ plane was due to land in 45 minutes.  Luckily, I don’t live too far from the highway or the airport, so a spontaneous decision was made – put all the groceries away and head out like any good fan would.  More horn honking all the way – and once I arrived at the airport, at least 2,000 fans had already gathered.  The plane had just landed and players were getting into their cars.  If you didn’t follow the sport or if you had just landed from overseas, you would have thought a major celebrity, George Bush, or the Queen had just arrived.  Police motorcades were escorting the players out of the hangar, people were screaming – the chant which I only started hearing this spring – “Alfie! Alfie! Alfie!” started to ring loud and clear.  Something extremely awesome had just happened, words can’t put it into perfect perspective – you just had to be there.  The players themselves were obviously surprised at the turnout, but all had a genuine look of relief on their faces – we did it – finally.  I’ve never seen Bryan Murray with such a big smile on his face, and Muckler hasn’t been so happy since he coached the 1990 Edmonton Oilers.

But the fun didn’t and hasn’t stopped there.  Getting out of the airport parking lot was more challenging than getting out of a game at Scotiabank Place – police were directing traffic with those pom poms they gave out at the games, fans were lined up along the streets all in local team garb, cheering – it was like all of us heading home were part of a parade.  Many more fans would head downtown – close to 15,000 people – they would walk along the newly designated “Sens Mile”, or for those who know the area – Elgin Street – they would party on Parliament Hill until the wee hours of the morning.  And they all behaved themselves.  Another 15,000+ showed up yesterday during a rally to send the Senators off to Calfornia with 100% support and a declaration – Ottawa has been designated a Duck Free zone.

I never truly appreciated how a local sports franchise can pick up the spirits of its residents and cause its own fans to party like it’s 2007 – especially after all this franchise has been through and all the disappointment of past playoff failures.  When talking about the championship teams of the past few years, I could never really put into proper perspective what the atmosphere must be like when the team finally gets over the proverbial hump.  While the ride is still far from over, if the Senators go on to win, I now know from experience, this city is going to party all summer long like it never has before – to hell with Canada Day – Ottawa during the Stanley Cup Finals will be the place to be, and it’s simply awesome watching it all unfold.

 

STANLEY CUP FINAL 2007

Anaheim Ducks (48-20-14 Season, 12-4 Playoffs) vs Ottawa Senators (48-25-9 Season, 12-3 Playoffs) – Season Series: Did not meet

I’m not sure if anybody can be surprised to see the Ducks back in the Finals.  I've said before they would be back, and here we are.  However, I couldn’t have ever imagined this caliber of a team – two Norris Trophy winners (and nominated again this year) in Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, the best goalie in the playoffs in Jean Sebastien Giguere (but by a mere fraction of a goal against), three of the best young players in the game today in Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Dustin Penner, not to mention the “Finnish Flash” Teemu Selanne, who, needless to say, has reinvented his game in Southern California.  If it seemed like it took this team a lot to beat Detroit, you haven’t seen anything yet.

The Senators have finally answered their critics and exorcised many of the demons of past playoff disappointments and are poised to finally win it all in just their 14th season, and 10th consecutive playoff appearance.  Led by the example of Conn Smythe candidate and their captain Daniel Alfredsson, this year’s edition of the team has by far outperformed all previous editions.  And to think back as recently as November the fans in this city were calling for management to trade him and countless others out of town in favor of more uncertainty and a fresh start.  It’s no secret the Senators didn’t have their best start out of the gate this season, and with Martin Gerber, the $3.5 Million man letting in soft goals, it was only going to get worse.  Enter Ray Emery, and a date with the Buffalo Sabres – in Buffalo (what else is new?).  The turnaround started.  Everyone joked at the time when the Senators scored an empty netter to seal what was a rare victory, the jubilation on the bench was almost as if they won the Stanley Cup – who knew it would all amount to this?  An endorsement from owner Eugene Melnyk and G.M. John Muckler was all the team needed, and from November straight through until now, they’ve been on a tear, and have the best record of the playoffs at 12-3.  They show no signs of slowing down, and not one person who has any association with the team is satisfied with just making it here.  The objective is to win.

The best thing about this year’s playoff run and how it’s ending up is the fact there are two very deserving teams here.  Not to take anything away from the past few seasons, but there’s been no surprises, no Cinderella runs – no real upsets, if you take away the Rangers sweep of Atlanta in the first round.  Both teams here are evenly matched and will have to be on top of both their physical and mental game.  It’s clear in looking at the potential matchups the first team to make a mistake won’t get to spend the summer with Lord Stanley.

Now here’s something I don’t normally do – break down the matchups by position – since this season has already had so many unorthodox moments, why not?

Goaltending: Giguere for Anaheim, Ray Emery for Ottawa – both have posted a goals against average of under 2 – Giguere’s 1.87 is a mere fraction better than the Rayzer’s 1.95, but Emery’s 3 shutouts is what stands out for me.  As every goaltender will tell you, it’s not so much how they play, it’s how the team in front of them plays.

Advantage: Call it even.

Defense: As Detroit found out, having a Norris trophy winner on your team doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to win.  Anaheim has two – but both will have to keep their composure and will have a tough task neutralizing Ottawa’s fast attack and transition game.  Outside of Niedermayer and Pronger, Francois Beauchemin has been every bit as great, but the ice time for the rest of the defense goes down dramatically after the big three’s average of 30 minutes per game.  Ottawa has a balanced defense, and six players who can get it done down low.  Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, Wade Redden, Andrej Meszaros, Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing could all be stars on any team, and have all stepped it up.  I still can’t believe the NHL passed on nominating Volchenkov for the Norris.  Perhaps he should show off his bumps and bruises from all those blocked shots.

Advantage: Ottawa

Offense: Outside of Selanne, Andy MacDonald, Rob Niedermayer and the dreaded Getzlaf, Penner, Perry combination, you don’t hear too much about the rest of the Ducks – Travis Moen was dynamite during the first two rounds but has been fairly quiet, as has Samuel Pahlsson – Todd Marchant could also be a game breaker with Chris Kunitz nursing an injury – however, most of the spotlight in Anaheim is reserved for the twin towers.  It seems as they and Selanne go, so do the Ducks.

In Ottawa, the three players you always hear about are Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, but they haven’t arrived here without secondary scoring from Dean McAmmond, Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly and Mike Comrie.  Patrick Eaves is just getting back from a concussion and could end up being a key player the Ducks are less likely to concentrate on.  Chris Neil and Peter Schaefer are two players who could break out at any time, and the Ducks better be aware.

Advantage: Ottawa

Special teams: The Ducks have been preaching the gospel of staying disciplined, but as the playoffs have worn on, it’s been easier said than done.  Rob Niedermayer and Pronger lost their collective minds at the expense of Detroit’s Tomas Holmstrom and the result was a five minute major, a game misconduct for Rob and a one game suspension for Pronger.  While it seemed to rally the Ducks to the end result, it wasn’t easy – as Detroit almost forced a Game 7 with their power play late in Game 6.  They can’t allow this to happen again.  It’s just lucky for the Ducks their own power play started clicking, otherwise we could be analyzing a Bytown vs Motown final.

No team in the playoffs has had a better penalty kill than Ottawa – the Buffalo Sabres managed just 2 power play goals throughout the entire Eastern Conference final – it’s the old story – get in the lanes and block shots – and they’ve been doing it for six months – and counting.  When in doubt, you can even crash your own net as Comrie can attest to.  The difference in the Eastern Final was clearly Ottawa’s special teams, they are very aggressive on the penalty kill and have the shorthanded goals to prove it, and their power play has been excellent, especially at home.  To me, all the Senators have to do is study the 3rd period of Game 6 of the Western Final, particularly how the Red Wings were able to get to Giguere five on four.

Advantage: Ottawa

For two teams who haven’t faced each other too much, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding this series.  The last meeting was January 19, 2006, a 4-3 shootout victory for Anaheim.  As we know, there will be no shootouts to decide this baby.  Both teams have a great transition game, both teams can play defense, and both teams will play it physical.  In the end, on paper at least, you have to like Ottawa’s chances to bring the Stanley Cup home to its birthplace.  For all of you out there who still insist on calling the players on this team “choke artists”, get your heads out of the sand and get a life.  As for Toronto, stop living in denial and get on the bandwagon already.  Win or lose, we’re about to have one hell of a party here in Bytown.  Quite frankly, at this point I just can’t see it not happening.  As you know, I’m a huge believer in karma, and Ottawa has lots of it this year.  You'll be able to hear the Alfie chants from Kanata all the way out in Disneyland.

Prediction: Senators in 6 – it’s time for the Cup to come home.

So while Canada’s capital and the city I call home is all shook up with Sens fever, as I close out what’s been nothing short of an unbelievable roller coaster ride of a season I want to mention a couple of things.

Congratulations, good night and good luck to Brian Leetch, who has finally decided to hang them up after 18 great NHL seasons.  It took him awhile to make his decision, but better late than never right?  Leetch, of course, played on the great 1994 NY Rangers Stanley Cup team and was cornerstone to some Team USA rosters that in all honesty gave Team Canada fits.  Who could forget the 1996 World Cup and the great 2002 Olympic Final game?  Thanks for the memories Brian.

I want to also express my sincere sympathies to Hamish and Victoria Fraser, whose young son Elgin passed away peacefully just hours after Game 5 of the Ottawa-Buffalo series.  Why is this significant?  Elgin was only a mere three years old, but was one of the biggest Senators fans ever.  In his short time with us, he touched a lot of hearts, both on the team and in the community.  He died of a rare form of childhood cancer called neuroblastoma.  Introduced to the team through a mutual family friend of Chris Phillips, the young boy was visited by the likes of Phillips and Mike Fisher on a regular basis, and was in the stands at Scotiabank Place for many a practice and at least eight Senators games, including Game 4 of the last series.  It’s just too bad he couldn’t hold on long enough to see the whale of a series we have coming up, but he was able to leave us peacefully, knowing the team had at least made it this far.  It’s the kind of story that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time.  Look for some sort of tribute by the Senators in the form of a patch or a banner during the finals, and look for the team to use this as extra motivation.  Should anyone feel the need to make donations, the family asks to send them to any one of the Ottawa Neuroblastoma Research Fund, Rogers’ House or the Ottawa Senators Foundation.  All three are great local charities, all striving to make a difference in the community.

Enjoy the final everyone, as it’s already a classic even though it doesn’t get underway until Monday.

 

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