LeBron James held the ball in his hands and more – the game, the series, maybe even his sport. Time after time, spot after spot, shot after shot, the best basketball player in the world found the space to show his skills. He lived up to the hype on the biggest stage and led his team to a title for the second straight year.
What does this have to do with hockey?
That’s the point.
This is not a column about why hockey is better or worse than basketball, born of some superiority or inferiority complex. This is a column about why hockey is so hard to play in its own way and so damn hard to figure out even for hardened puckheads.
And this is a primer for people who might pay attention now that King James has been crowned and – hey, that’s weird – the Stanley Cup Final is still on. Two Original Six teams are tied, 2-2? Chicago Blackhawks? Boston Bruins? Best 2-out-of-3? Beer me.
It goes in cycles. Hockey wanes in popularity in the American mainstream, and then the American mainstream waxes poetic about hockey for whatever reason. It’s wax on this year despite the lockout, maybe because of the lockout. See a cover story in Sports Illustrated: “THE BEST – WHY THE NHL POSTSEASON IS LIKE NO OTHER.” Read a piece by the esteemed Joe Posnanski: “HOCKEY – A WRINGER OF EMOTIONS LIKE NO OTHER.”
The Stanley Cup playoffs are like no other. Just look at the NBA playoffs to understand and appreciate why, and start with this: The Miami Heat of the NBA went to a third straight Finals and won back-to-back championships despite a worthy opponent in the San Antonio Spurs. The Miami Heat of the NHL got swept in the third round.
Bruins winger Milan Lucic compared the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Heat entering the Eastern Conference final because they had the best player in the world in Sidney Crosby and a collection of stars that came together partly by choice, making them the favorites.
But the Bruins shut down all those stars. The Pens scored only two goals in four games. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – MVPs, scoring champions, league champions, just like LeBron – didn’t record a point. Neither did Jarome Iginla, James Neal or Kris Letang.
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Afterward, Bruins winger Jaromir Jagr – another MVP, scoring champion, league champion, just like LeBron – brought up the Heat.
“It’s like in basketball, when you have a good player, you double-team him, let other guys beat you,” Jagr said. “Same thing. If you’re going to play against LeBron James, you’re going to put two guys on him, let the other guys beat you. Let the Birdman beat you.”
Jagr locked his thumbs and flapped his fingers like wings.
“He’s pretty good,” he said with a laugh. “That’s the way it is.”
Except it isn’t the same thing. Why couldn’t the Spurs do to James what the Bruins did to Crosby? Why did James beat them while Chris Andersen – the “Birdman” – had only three points in Game 7? Why have the winning goals in the Stanley Cup Final come not from the stars but from Andrew Shaw, Daniel Paille, Daniel Paille again and Brent Seabrook?
There are some similarities. James rose to the challenge not just because of his talent, but because of a work ethic that made his outside shot a strength. The games can be tight, and a series can hinge on one dramatic moment, like Ray Allen’s three-pointer that saved the Heat at the end of regulation in Game 6. Luck can play a role, like when Mario Chalmers banked in a buzzer-beating trey at the end of the third quarter of Game 7. The supporting cast can make an impact. Shane Battier knocked down those shots.
Basketball, like hockey, is a team game. The difference is, the best players have a much greater influence on it. They play the whole game or close to it, not almost half like a great defenseman or about a third like a great forward. They win it or lose it for their teams. It might come down to one shot, but that shot never goes in off a shinpad, and it is never taken by the 12th man, let alone the 18th.
We put pressure on hockey stars and judge them on team success, but so much of winning and losing is out of individual control. It is so difficult for any player to impose his will on the game. A goalie can dominate, but he can be undone by bounces, like the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask in Game 1, or breakdowns and rebounds, like Rask in Game 4. A defenseman can intimidate, but he can be brought down to size quickly, like the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara in Game 4. A forward can do everything right and still not score. He can brood in frustration, and then he can gain confidence simply because he tips a puck and it slips in underneath a pad.
Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said “it doesn’t make much sense” that a puck going off your stick “can liberate you as a player,” taking the pressure off, allowing you to stop forcing things, “but it does.” It’s hockey, and it doesn’t make much sense sometimes. Toews put up big numbers when the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. He feels he is a better player now, and many hockey people consider him the ultimate three-zone centerman and competitor. But when he scored on a tip in Game 4, it was only his second goal in 21 games. Make sense of that.
The NHL has a hard salary cap. Its talent is spread evenly throughout the league. The coaches are sophisticated, the systems are refined, the goalies are overstuffed, the emotions are raised, the lanes are clogged and the referees are human. Especially in the playoffs, especially deep in the playoffs, things are so close that it almost has to come down to something unplanned, the flip of a coin. The best strategy is to increase your odds – get the puck, keep the puck, get traffic in front, attempt shots and give yourself more chances to score goals somehow.
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The negative is negation over creation, the stars not standing out enough, the undermining of the meritocracy, too much randomness. The best player in a given game, let alone the game, probably won’t have the puck on his stick in position to make the difference at the defining moment. No team has repeated in 15 years. Whoever wins the Cup this year will be the first to win it twice in the cap era – as big an accomplishment as there is in the NHL today. Maybe the league would have an easier time marketing itself if it had a Wayne Gretzky or a dynasty that would hook casual fans year after year.
But the positive is unpredictability. You never know which player will win it or lose it, which shot or bounce will decide it, when the defining moment will come. You never know what the night will be like – short or long, defensive or offensive, boring or breathtaking. In this series, we have had triple overtime and two more OTs, blown leads and comebacks, beautiful goals and lucky goals, stifling defense and up-and-down action. Who’s going to win the Conn Smythe? Who’s going to win the Cup? Who knows?
“What’s happening right now I think is very fitting,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “Anybody who’s watched this series so far probably realizes that both these teams are pretty well-balanced and match up well against each other. For fans that are watching hockey, I think that’s what they want to see, and that’s what we’re providing.”
Yep. Like no other.
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