Damn, it's that time of year again. The Stanley Cup Finals.
It's been a hockey whirlwind since the regular season ended. What started with sixteen teams is down to the final two for some of the best hockey of the year, so buckle up, folks. We're in for a wild ride.
Aside from showcasing some of the best players and teams the league has to offer, the NHL playoffs and the trophy they're named for are different from that of any other sport for a number of reasons. The Stanley Cup itself dates back to the 1800s, and its history is as rich––if not richer––than the league it's passed around within. Since Ted Lindsay became the first captain to hoist the Cup in 1950, it's been on a space shuttle, in a war zone, left on the side of a road in a snowbank, in Steve Yzerman's shower, and of course in the bottom of Mario Lemieux's swimming pool.
Most will tell you that winning the NHL's most coveted prize takes more endurance than in any other sport, arguably why the occurrences of back-to-back champions and franchise dynasties are so few and far between. Most will also tell you that skill and stacked rosters alone don't win titles, which leaves us with the intangibles that truly make up a championship-caliber team.
Now I like the Blackhawks and Kings as much as anyone who likes good hockey, but let's face it, it's time for someone else to win a Stanley Cup around here. This postseason in particular has been all about one of my favorite things as a sports fan: the underdogs. Last fall, if anyone legitimately said they expected the Sharks and Penguins to meet in the finals, you'd have laughed. Pittsburgh started rocky, with talking heads and media critics questioning everything from their off season acquisitions to their leadership, before the team ultimately made a mid-season coaching change; not something you often see with championship-caliber clubs. San Jose's summer was filled with off-ice drama after long-time leader Joe Thornton was stripped of his captaincy, leaving a lot of question marks around the team's core and its future. After questionable starts to the season however, the Sharks went on to slay their demons with a 4-1 series win over their rival LA Kings before Pittsburgh eliminated the heavily favored and much-hated Caps in the second round.
No one would have picked these two teams to be here today, and that's what makes playoff hockey so much fun. Anything can happen, and the story lines you thought you'd see are often far from the actual outcome. Take Phil Kessel, who after being picked 5th overall by Boston was shipped off to Toronto and labeled an under-performing coach killer of sorts. His name was mentioned more often than not when discussing the Pens' early season struggles, but after a surge in offensive production this postseason, Phil is four wins away from hoisting his first Stanley Cup.
A similarly unlikely journey holds true for the Sharks' former captain, Joe Thornton. After almost 20 years and 1,400 games in the NHL, Jumbo too has his shot at the ultimate prize, now more in reach than ever before.
Aside from being a Boston fan, Pittsburgh and San Jose are two of my favorite NHL clubs, both more than deserving of a cup this year. Whether Crosby silences his critics, ending his person championship drought and Kessel gets his first taste of victory, or if veterans Jumbo Joe and Patrick Marleau get to hoist their franchise's long-awaited first Stanley Cup, the 2016 finals will for certain have a storybook ending. May the best team win.