Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Stanley Cup Playoffs - A Reason To Love April

April is my favorite sports month of the year. This evening begins one of the primary reasons for this month’s greatness. Yes, it’s time for the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As an avowed puckhead, I eagerly await this time of year. For the next two months, 16 teams will take to the ice in four rounds of playoffs, hoping to bring home the coolest trophy in sport: the Stanley Cup. Even if you’re not a big hockey fan – and many of my best friends are not, sadly – I bet that once you give it a chance that you will find yourself watching intently to see who scores that game-winning goal. Back when I was in college, I can recall many a night when my non-hockey fan friends and I stayed up to watch Cup playoff games that went deep into overtime. We all were glued to the screen, eagerly awaiting that one shot that got past the goalie to give a team a momentum-changing win or would clinch a series, allowing a team to march on to the next round. Give it a chance, folks. Trust me. It’s probably the most passionate, intense and exciting playoffs of any in the four major North American sports leagues. Not saying the NBA Playoffs, which begin next week, aren’t intense or worth watching. I just find the NHL Playoffs more exciting and a better show.

Alas, this year’s NHL tournament does not feature my favorite team, the New York Rangers. The Blueshirts were eliminated from playoff contention on the very last day of the regular season with a 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. The result also lifted the Flyers, a long-time rival of the Rangers, into the chase for Lord Stanley’s silver chalice. Missing the playoffs by a single point in the standings. That is just painful. So instead of seeing my favorite goalie Henrik Lundqvist trying to carry his teammates far into the playoffs, I’m resigned to just watch the action as simply a hockey fan. It stinks, but it’s not so bad. The Rangers, honestly, have a lot to work on and probably wouldn't have lasted long as an 8-seed in the Eastern Conference.

This year’s playoffs should be very interesting. The top teams in both conferences look great, but the teams that didn’t win their divisions will be formidable. The Washington Capitals, led by superstar Alexander Ovechkin, won the Presidents Trophy for the league’s best regular season record. They figure to be on a mission after losing in the second round of last year’s playoffs. The team that ousted them, the Pittsburgh Penguins, are back as well, seeking to win the Stanley Cup for a second year. While superstar Sidney Crosby, a legend in his native Canada before his 23rd birthday, is hungry for another championship, he will be tested with a cast that’s probably not as good as the one he played with last year. The Detroit Red Wings, America’s most successful NHL franchise, has rebounded from its pre-Olympic woes and looks ready to do damage in the Western Conference. Their rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks, are enjoying great success on the ice with young stars like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. They’re also continuing Chicago’s hockey renaissance. After years of being awful, the Blackhawks, an Original Six team, are good again and worthy of the Second City’s love and affection. They’re also odds-on favorites to take home the Cup, according to many hockey experts. (Including ESPN’s Barry Melrose.)

Speaking of the Cup, I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing it up close during a visit to Toronto three years ago. It looks just as beautiful in person as it does on television. Ask my brother just how giddy I became upon sight of the Cup, which is housed in the Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto. Talk about a kid in a candy store. Even my brother, who is not a big sports fan, appreciated the greatness of the Cup.

So many things make the Stanley Cup so cool. For one, there’s only one Cup. Other sports leagues give out a different trophy at the end of their playoffs. Not the NHL. There is just one silver chalice and the championship team gets to hold the trophy until the start of the new season. Another cool feature is that the trophy has the name of every NHL champion engraved into its panels. And in most cases, the names of the players on the winning team are also included. A lot more lasting that a T-shirt, I’d say.

But the best thing about the Stanley Cup is that every member of the winning team gets to spend a day with it to do whatever he chooses – within reason, of course. A player can bring it to his hometown and show it off in a parade, much like Crosby did last year when he took the trophy back to his hometown Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. Others have taken the Cup on fishing trips. Some have eaten cereal out of its bowl. And if you believe the story, members of the 1994 champion New York Rangers brought the Cup to a strip club in Manhattan. Cruise the Internet if you’re curious and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of funny stories about players’ celebratory adventures with the Cup.

Now that I’ve told you that, let’s drop the puck. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are here and I’m ready to enjoy it.

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