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Commentary, news, analysis and reader-driven discussions focusing on this year's Stanley Cup playoffs.
1:26 a.m. ET, 6/07/07

Selanne gets his moment ... finally

Posted by Brian Cazeneuve
Teemu Selanne had to wait 15 seasons before getting a shot at raising the Stanley Cup
David E. Klutho/SI
Teemu Selanne stood at the red line, trying to force out words that wouldn't come. He embraced his wife, Sirpa, fought through one bout of tears, turned to Pierre Maguire, NBC's field reporter, and out came ... nothing. It took some second effort, the very kind that has given Selanne a second life in Anaheim, that turned the emotions into words. "Sometimes I never believed this was going to happen," he said. It took Selanne 15 seasons, many of them played at All-Star caliber, for him to lift the Stanley Cup for the first time, after his Anaheim Ducks closed out the Ottawa Senators 6-2 on Wednesday. Did the 35-pound trophy feel heavy or light, Maguire wanted to know. "Quite heavy actually," Selanne answered. "What an unbelievable feeling. I've waited so long for this."

Selanne broke in with the Winnipeg Jets in 1992 and scored an NHL rookie-record 76 goals in his debut campaign. Though he was an instant star, some of Selanne's teammates didn't embrace him right away. One, a veteran defenseman named Randy Carlyle, was particularly critical of Selanne's practice habits. Instead of putting Selanne on the cover of the team's media guide, the Jets gave the honor to enforcer Tie Domi. "I still get on Teemu now and then," Carlyle recalled this week. "He had so much talent and so much ability, I wanted to see him get the most out of it."

As Selanne's coach, Carlyle has seen him do just that. In 1,041 games, Selanne has posted career numbers of 540 goals, 595 assists in 1,135 games. The man who will turn 37 next month has spoken often of wanting to go out on top and it has taken him a second wind to win a title.

Selanne had a few recent seasons that indicated his declining skills. In 2003, he and Paul Kariya signed bargain-basement contracts with the Colorado Avalanche for a chance to win a championship. Yet somehow, the chemistry failed. Selanne managed just 32 points in 78 games and the Avs fell short of a trophy. When Selanne re-signed in 2005 with Anaheim, it almost seemed like a sympathy move for an aging veteran to finish his career where it started. Instead, Selanne mustered seasons of 40 and 48 goals and at times was the Ducks' only consistent offensive threat.

As he got closer to his ultimate goal this season, Selanne was basking in the moments. He recalled the 59 text messages he received after the Ducks eliminated the Red Wings in the Western Conference final. Many were from his Finnish friends who had promised to come watch him win the Stanley Cup if he ever reached the finals. Selanne flew 16 of them over to North America, including his twin brother, Paavo, to share the occasion. He even needed help from eBay to secure the last of the tickets. The group donned t-shirts reading: "Teemu the Flash." He has hinted, but never confirmed, that this would be his last NHL game.

To be fair, Game 5, wasn't, in itself, a highlight-reel effort for Selanne, who was minus-1, failed to record a point in just over 20 minutes of play and lost six of seven faceoffs, but it is likely one he'll never forget. "These were by far the best two years of my life," he said. "I've always dreamed about retiring on the top."

In almost every lost series, there is one moment of crushing frustration, of debilitating disappointment. Call it the Steve Smith moment. The final victim of Smith-itis (not to be confused with Kasparaitis) this season was Ottawa's Chris Phillips, a steady defenseman, whose fortunes were driven into the ice with a mistake in the second period that embodied his team's dying hopes.

As Phillips' Senators fell to the Ducks on Wednesday night, Phillips made an unfortunate error that called to mind a similar one made by the Edmonton defenseman in 1986. The series provided the only glitch in what could otherwise have been a five-year run of Stanley Cups for Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton juggernaut.

The Oilers were locked in a heated Game 7 against their fierce rivals, from Calgary. Despite playing on home ice, the Oilers had to rally from two goals down to even the final game 2-2. Smith had control of the puck beside his own net and tried to make a lead pass up ice. Instead, the puck hit the back of the skate of his goaltender Grant Fuhr and rolled into the net for what turned out to be the series-deciding goal. No matter that Smith had played superbly for the rest of the series, he was remembered for that one play. Ask Bill Buckner or Scott Norwood what that moment of infamy can stand out among a resume of high standards.

On Wednesday, Phillips' Senators were finally showing signs of life after a horrible first period. Four minutes after Daniel Alfredsson brought the Senators to within 2-1, Phillips was trying to make a play up the ice when he banked the puck off Ray Emery's right skate and into the Ottawa net. The Senators never really recovered.

The Smith moment wasn't quite the same for Phillips, because his team was trailing 3-1 in the series, playing like a defeated group even before his miscue. It was one of several mistakes on the night for Phillips who also deflected home Andy McDonald's opening goal and gave the puck away before a third one. If there is a silver lining, remember the picture of Gretzky receiving the Stanley Cup for the Oilers in 1987 and handing it off to a relieved and worthy recipient: Steve Smith.

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The top three stars from Wednesday's Stanley Cup Game 5. Do you agree? Let's hear it:

By Brian Cazeneuve, SI.com

1. Travis Moen, Anaheim: The Duck forward recorded two goals, getting credit for Chris Phillips' bank into his own net and potting a key insurance goal in the third period.

2. Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa: The captain had his best game of the series, scoring twice, including a brilliant solo shorthanded goal that kept the Sens in the game.

3. Andy McDonald, Anaheim: The Anaheim forward completed a great series by putting the Ducks on the board in the first period, banking a shot off Phillips for a key power-play goal.
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12:58 a.m. ET, 6/07/07

Sens' futility torch passed to Phillips

Posted by Michael Farber
Chris Phillips' gaffe was eerily similar to former Oiler Steve Smith's during Game 7 of the 1986 Cup finals
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- If the Ottawa Senators, destiny's doormats of the NHL, need a poster boy for their Stanley Cup playoff futility, the torch has been passed from captain Daniel Alfredsson to hard-luck defenseman Chris Phillips.

This is California so there must be karma, none of it good for the estimable Phillips. But before we turn to the mayhem of the 6-2 capitulation to Anaheim in Game 5 that ended the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs, turn the clock back a few days. In Game 4, Phillips broke his skate blade in the third period. When he put on his backup pair, one of the blades hadn't been properly sharpened. He skated off quickly after taking a quick turn, but fellow defenseman Wade Redden wasn't quite ready for the surprise change and Teemu Selanne swept in past the defenseman to set up Dustin Penner for the winning goal in the pivotal game of the series.

But at least that bit of buzzard's luck was masked by the confusion at the Ottawa bench -- unlike the nationally-televised crisis in the finale Wednesday where the LaBrea Tar Pits weren't deep enough to mask Phillips' gaffes:
• On Andy McDonald's opening score for the Ducks, the puck glanced off Phillips' foot.
• On Rob Niedermayer's second goal, Phillips made a bad pinch at the Ducks' blue line and Niedermayer skated down the wing and scored on a backhander.
• Of course, those were the canapes before the Bucknerian gaffe du jour -- known in the NHL as a Steve Smith.

With Ottawa trailing 2-1, Phillips was wheeling behind the net, chased by Rob Niedermayer. Niedermayer stuck out his stick and gave Phillips a little tap on the lumber just as the defenseman was moving the puck to his backhand, causing him to nudge the puck back in Ray Emery's feet and -- gulp -- into the net.

For Phillips, it was the only goal (or point) he would score in the playoffs.

"Now I know how Steve Smith feels," Phillips said of the former Edmonton defenseman who banked a puck off Oiler goalie Grant Fuhr's skate and in for the winning goal in a Game 7 against the Calgary Flames in 1986, an error effectively interrupting the Oilers' dynasty. "I was trying to pull [the puck] out and go the other way and it got caught in [Emery's feet] and I couldn't get it back."

"That was, I guess, the Edmonton Oilers, Steve Smith, a number of years ago," said Ottawa coach Bryan Murray. "Puts your team in a hole."

The real pity is Phillips and his partner, the sturdy Anton Volchenkov, generally were superb in the playoffs. The shutdown pair is the best in the Eastern Conference -- and that, perhaps, is the neatest and most complete explanation for the Ducks' five-game Stanley Cup triumph, which made Anaheim the 19th franchise, and the first from California, to win the Cup since the NHL took control of it in 1927. Forget for the moment that Emery, other than his brilliant work in a 1-0 loss in Game 2, played without much technique or brio or that Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley might as well have had their hockey cards on a milk carton in the final or that the Phillips, a classy player, was on the ice for a scapegoat kind of goal that will live in memory far longer than it deserves.

The difference might be as simple as East and West.

The Ducks were battle-tested, playing in a better division than Ottawa and certainly a better conference. The West is simply bigger and tougher, the kind of hockey necessities that exist in the post-lockout NHL and will continue to do so as long as players are willing to lose teeth in pursuit of a vulcanized piece of rubber. Instead of the smallish and skilled teams that the Senators needed to beat in the last two rounds (New Jersey, then Buffalo) to reach the final, Anaheim had to claw its way through more imposing teams, including Detroit. Indeed, Ottawa would probably be no better than the fourth or maybe the fifth best team in the West, behind the Ducks, Red Wings, San Jose and perhaps Nashville. If the abbreviated final was proof of anything -- beyond the eternal importance of goaltending -- it highlighted the attributes size, speed and intimidation. In the one match the Senators did win, Game 3, they actually pushed back and forced the Ducks on their heels. The rest of the time, the Senators were pinatas, whacked around by the checking line of Samuel Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Niedermayer and generally controlled by the big, high-end Anaheim defenseman like François Beauchemin, Scott Niedermayer and, when he wasn't being dragged to the principal's office, Chris Pronger.

Ottawa can't help change geography, but general manager John Muckler and Murray can continue to change the chemistry. They succeeded, for the large part, in making the formerly fancy-dan Senators into a blue-collar group, but in the end they were still horse-collared by a more relentless team that shoved them around in two different time zones.

Chris Phillips -- you just happened to be on the wrong team at the wrong time.

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2:30 p.m. ET, 6/06/07

The NHL: A Second Take

Posted by John Rolfe
Can the wonderously talented Sidney Crosby lead the NHL to widespread popularity?
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
Yesterday's installment about the NHL's inability to woo the vast pool of indifferent American sports fans drew many thoughtful responses from readers, and I wanted to weigh in again on several points that were raised:

Anti-NHL media bias: Some readers felt I was doing a hatchet job on the NHL, in keeping with a media that dwells only on the negative and refuses to help attract new fans by hyping the sport. I wasn’t. My piece was directed at people who don't care for hockey at all -- an attempt to fish for reasons why they continue to ignore it (the piece also ran in the Extra Mustard section). Me? I love hockey, and it was my passion for the New York Islanders of the early 80s that inspired me to become a sportswriter, so I've seen the league's slide from the halcyon days of the 80s and early 90s to its present struggles, which are for the most part a matter of perception.

The NHL's problems go back its initial attempt to attain a popularity that was roughly equal to Gary Bettman's former home --the NBA -- and it is now being judged according to its failure to do so. Each setback after the public-relations nightmare of the 2004-05 lockout – from faltering attendance in some markets to the relative-pittance TV deals with Versus and NBC to minuscule ratings and lack of newspaper coverage – has created a big ball of negative energy. People like to sign on with success stories. Right now, the NHL is perceived as a bumbling loser.

Are we in the media to blame for that? Well, we're the messengers, but there is a story here. Truth is, hockey stories, even ones about the wonders of Sidney Crosby, draw a small fraction of the traffic we get for stories about the NFL, MLB, NBA or even NASCAR. All media outlets try to cater to the widest possible audience by tailoring their coverage accordingly. None that I know of has a vested interest in seeing the NHL fail, but as long as it is judged like a Big Four sport, it will come off looking badly by comparison.

The Game: I find it amazing that, cultural bias aside, so many people have such a devil of a time recognizing the skill, color and passion of hockey. I enjoy what I see on the ice these days, although I tend to cringe at gimmickry like the shootout. I don't mind fighting, if it's kept within reason, as it traditionally serves a purpose to vent emotion and, in the best cases, maintain order. But among the devoted, there are plenty who decry it and much prefer the Olympic-style skill game. One group or the other will always be dissatisfied.

Real Fans: Even in the best of times, and as marvelous the game may be, the NHL has always appealed to a select number of devoted fans in the U.S. You either love it or you don't give a hoot about it. Maybe if the Stanley Cup Final were a cultural event like the Super Bowl, it would attract more of the merely curious, but that's unlikely to happen here. Yet, I don't believe a wholesale flight out of the south is necessary. There are solid numbers of fans in Carolina, Nashville, Miami, Tampa Bay and Dallas, many of whom have migrated from northern cities. Having a winning team definitely helps get fans on board, so I don't think it's necessarily good to have a few high-profile teams like the Red Wings and Rangers winning the Cup most of the time. Everyone likes to feel they have a shot each season, unless you think backwaters of hopelessness are somehow advantageous. The problem is in assuming that all of these pockets of devotion add up to an NBA- or MLB-sized national following. That's not true. As for keeping the faithful, well, affordable tickets for decent seats are a good start.

The Loooonnnnnng Season: I agree with readers who say that the regular season is way too long and that it forces the playoffs to compete with the NBA postseason as well as the new Major League season. Unfortunately, we live in an age where the prevailing attitude is that you can't have enough of a good thing. Well, we can. A shorter regular season would help create anticipation and maintain appreciation while filling the void after the NCAA Tournament. Yes, it would mean cutting back on revenue, unless the league can find other sources.

TV or not TV: Watching on TV may not be the best way to get hooked on the game, but that's how I did it. And youth programs help – to an extent. In the early 90s, I covered a large youth roller hockey tournament in Chicago that was sponsored by the NHL and wrote stories about the Hockey In Harlem program that was part of the league's effort to grow the next generation of fans. But as with soccer, kids often play a sport and then drift away into the multitude of other activities that are available to them. Only a percentage come back. The NHL has to continue to compete for their interest.

The Future:It's worth noting that Gary Bettman recognizes that kids no longer get their sports in the usual way – by sitting in front of televised games. They get their coverage in bits and pieces – on highlight shows and the Internet. Recently, the NHL partnered with Amazon Unbox, iTunes, Slingbox, and Akimbo to make games and highlight clips available 24/7 on the web. So if we gauge interest solely by traditional means – TV ratings and gate numbers – and in comparison to the other four major sports, the NHL looks bereft. But it will be interesting to see where the league is at 10 years from now and if it is judged according to new criteria. In the meantime, I think it would do well to treat those who truly love the sport as well as it possibly can.


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6:05 p.m. ET, 6/05/07

Alfredsson's unseemly lapse

Posted by Michael Farber
Scott Niedermayer (left) confronted Daniel Alfredsson, but may actually benefit from the Ottawa captain's classless act.
Bruce Bennett /Getty Images
ANAHEIM -- The good news, in retrospect, is that after being frustrated mightily in the Stanley Cup final, Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson finally put a puck exactly where he was aiming.

The bad news, of course, was he was aiming directly at Scott Niedermayer, captain of the Anaheim Ducks.

Even now, a day later, the incident on Monday at the end of the second period of Game 4 in Ottawa - Kafka goes to the Stanley Cup! - would not have seemed more bizarre if Alfredsson had played the third period decked out in his jammies.

"He's a team leader, a guy who shows a great degree of sportsmanship most of the time," Bill Clement, NBC's between-period host, was saying after the game. "For somebody like him to do that, it was as if there was a Mr. Hyde living inside the Dr. Jekyll all of these years. It was an indication of the frustration level he's feeling with his (Jason) Spezza, (Dany) Heatley line. It was without class, and it was very uncharacteristic of him."

Alfredsson had earned a reputation as among the classiest players in the NHL. Sure, he could be cheeky -- remember the game against the Maple Leafs in January 2004 when he feigned tossing his stick away, imitating or perhaps mocking a gesture that had cost Toronto captain Mats Sundin a suspension? - but there never has been anything overtly mean or even mean-spirited in the way Alfredsson went about the rough business of being a professional hockey player.

Until, well … let Alfredsson tell it:

"I looked up at the clock. There were five, six seconds left (in the second period of Game 4). I wind up (to shoot the puck into the Anaheim end) and the puck kinda stops. I'm just getting rid of it. Didn't really mean to hit him … I saw him, yeah, but I just wanted to shoot the puck away."

And -- this is just a guess -- his dog also ate his homework.

From an end-arena seat in the auxiliary press box, it was apparent Alfredsson initially intended to fire a 140-footer down the ice in the direction of Ducks goalie Jean-Sébastien Giguère as time was winding down, but the right winger slowed as he gained his own blue line, swiveled his hips and slapped the puck directly at Niedermayer, who was in the neutral zone between the red line and the Ducks' blue line. There were almost 85 feet -- the width of a rink -- to work with, but Alfredsson choose to go for the three feet that Niedermayer was occupying at the moment. Bull's eye. He appeared to nail the defenseman in the leg.

Now, shooting a puck at, or even near, a player is not exactly unknown among hockey's dark arts, but usually it is the by-product of some personal vendetta -- an unpenalized elbow or some on-ice idiocy that needs to be rectified in a frontier manner. But as Ducks defenseman Sean O'Donnell said, "That's Scott Niedermayer you're doing that to. He's never offended anyone or run anyone or done anything (untoward) in his whole life. We took it as a sign of frustration on (Alfredsson's) part, trying to get his team going."

Said veteran Teemu Selanne, who has often played against Alfredsson internationally: "I couldn't believe what I saw. I really hope he didn't mean to hurt somebody. Only a couple of seconds left and the whole ice is available and he shoots at Scotty. That's dangerous. I'd never seen that before. It shocked me, especially coming from him. Alfie's a gentleman. I know him very well. It looked weird."

Alfredsson entered the Stanley Cup Final as the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, but with a single gesture, he helped shift the focus from his candidacy to his target's.

Niedermayer had little to say about the incident after the game. "That really has nothing to do with trying to win a hockey game,” he said. He had been angry enough to confront Alfredsson as the players jostled after the siren sounded. his high-road attitude doing him as much credit as his game. No, these have not been a uniformly brilliant four playoff rounds for Niedermayer, who appears to be nursing an ankle injury judging by the padding around his foot. But he has soldiered on nobly, especially with suspended defenseman Chris Pronger unavailable for Game 4. Niedermayer was a rock in Pronger's absence, making the proper pass to help the Ducks, often under pressure, clear the puck from their defensive zone, and demonstrating poise and unimpeachable leadership.

Along with brother Rob Niedermayer, the right winger on the vaunted Anaheim checking line, the 15 media voters could give the Conn Smythe to a family for the first time and probably no one would object. If the Ducks can close out Ottawa in Game 5 on Wednesday, one of the surprise contenders for the award would be Sami Pahlsson, the shutdown center who could be the first checker to win since Bob Gainey of the 1979 Montreal Canadiens. Pahlsson would also finish with the fewest points of any Smythe-winning forward since Dave Keon scored eight in 12 games for Toronto in 1967, the last playoff prior to expansion. Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer and Travis Moen effectively eliminated Minnesota's Marian Gaborik in the first round, vaporized Daniel and Henrik Sedin in the second, forced Detroit to break up Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in the Western Conference Final and so far have stifled Ottawa's top line. Said one Anaheim player, "Sami's the one that makes that checking line go." (In Year Two of the post-lockout NHL, imagine a checking center winning the Conn Smythe. This was probably not what the architects of the supposedly new open game had in mind.)

Or perhaps the voters will prefer the sound if not always spectacular Giguère, who also won the award in 2003 when Anaheim dropped a seven-game final to New Jersey. But don’t forget Scott Niedermayer, who lost the Conn Smythe to Giguère that spring even though he led the Devils to their third Stanley Cup. There is lingering sentiment among a few voters that Niedermayer was done a grave injustice at the time. Now Alfredsson's ridiculous shot off the foot of an innocent bystander has brought Niedermayer back into sharp focus in this series, a reminder of how important the Anaheim captain is.

If Niedermayer wins the Conn Smythe, you can think of it as a victim's right.

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2:54 p.m. ET, 6/05/07

Cherry flavor

Posted by Allan Muir
The one and only Grapes.
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
As an agent for advancing the glories of Canadian culture, Don Cherry lacks the articulate grace of Sarah Polley, Leonard Cohen or even Alanis Morrisette, who offered lovely renditions of both national anthems on Monday night.

But as Don himself might say, that don't mean he don't make good television.

The host of CBC's Coach’s Corner, strangled syntax and all, joined Bill Clement and Brett Hull for the second intermission of NBC's broadcast of Game 4 of the Finals. And while he toned down his traditionally garish garb ("I didn't think the U.S. crowds were ready for one of my biggies"), Cherry lived up to the hype with an entertaining, two-segment appearance that focused on his favorite topic: fighting.

The panel discussion got off to a quick start when Clement asked Cherry how to prevent incidents such as Daniel Alfredsson's flagrant cheap shot of the puck at Scott Niedermayer at the end of the period. Any fear that Cherry would tone down the rhetoric for American TV was quickly assuaged.

"If I was commissioner, I'd like to get hold of the guy who put in the instigator rule," Cherry said, quickly revving into high gear. "The fans love the fights, the players love the fights, the people go nuts on the fights . . . but I'm told the reason they cut it down was because they wanted USA people to watch it. Can you believe that?"

"That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life. U.S . . . NASCAR where there's crashes, football, kill the quarterback, ultimate fighting, who's kidding who?"

Honestly, it doesn't sound much better live than it looks in print, but that's the everyman charm that defines Cherry and has made him an icon in Canada. His willingness to say whatever's on his mind -- even when he can't say it clearly --is what makes his Saturday appearances on Hockey Night In Canada must-see TV.

"The National Hockey League and NBC and everybody in U.S. television is making a big mistake," Cherry continued. "They should go back to rock 'em, sock 'em."

Hull chimed in in agreement: "We could poll this whole crowd up here and they’d say, We love to see a good goal, and every other one would say, and I’d love to see a fight at the same time."

Apparently Cherry's speech patterns are infectious.

The trio also spent some time dissecting the hit that got Chris Pronger suspended for the game, with both Hull and Cherry saying that Pronger's equipment and Dean McAmmond's previous concussion history played a big part in the result. They also touched on Cherry's Game 1 visit with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"He was a good guy," Cherry reported. "You shoulda seen the security around him. Guns and everything. Nice guy."

"He's a right winger that's moving to center," Hull said.

"No, no, he's a left winger now," Cherry replied somberly. "He's a tree hugger."

The only time the two weren't in lock-step was on the subject of Alfredsson's controversial goal in Game 3. After Hull protested that it shouldn't have counted, Cherry went on a classic counterattack by bringing up Hull's own Cup-clincher from 1999. "You should talk, Mr. Foot In The Crease. That goal shouldn’t have happened."

Of course it all came back to fighting in the second segment, and in true Cherry fashion it included a bite at the hand that was feeding him: "Look, it would help the game. It would help your audiences and it would help our audiences, you better believe it. Take a poll in here and 75-80 percent would like to see a tussle. Remember, Dick Ebersol: More fights, you'll get bigger crowds."

If Ebersol, the head of NBC Sports, needs additional input to support Cherry's theory, he should check out his own web site. A poll placed there after Cherry's appearance shows 86 percent of respondents agree with the pro-fighting position. Chances are the numbers would be even higher if viewers were asked if they wanted to see more of Cherry on NBC's broadcasts. Hull may be striving to be Cherry-esque in his first season as a commentator, but there's nothing like the original.

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1:40 p.m. ET, 6/05/07

Sweating Blood

Posted by John Rolfe
Would a lot more of this make you want to watch the NHL?
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
Let's face it. If you're not a hockey fan, you'd rather watch a four-hour special on smelting than a minute of an NHL game. So, what would it take to actually pique your interest?

Hockey's outspoken broadcasting icon Don Cherry argued on Monday night's Stanley Cup Finals broadcast on NBC that the NHL made a hideous mistake by putting the lid on fighting. More fights, bigger crowds was his argument. My feeling is: Yes, but.

The NHL is taking a brave stance by curbing fighting and violence when the cultural tide is running strongly in favor of blood. (See: the popularity of mixed martial arts, gory video games and gentle-on-the-senses movies such as Grindhouse and the Hostel franchise). To grab a big slice of that audience, the NHL would have to do more than revoke the instigator rule and unleash those lovable goons who go by such compelling nicknames as The Grim Reaper, Cementhead and The Hammer. It would have to eliminate skating and passing and cut right to the main course: knuckle sandwiches -- delivered with spiked gloves.

The NHL's biggest problem -- and most bitter irony -- is, as always, that hockey is a Canadian sport that was annexed by Canada's widely indifferent neighbor to the south. Of the hallowed Original Six teams, four were in the U.S. But Americans don't enthusiastically embrace foreign sports in great numbers. Decades of drumbeats for soccer has not elevated it above a recreational/niche sport here when compared to baseball or basketball. The roller variety notwithstanding, hockey is expensive to play, low on the glamour appeal and fat contracts of football, basketball and baseball, and its greatest legends – Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, etc. – are Canadian. The influx of European players reinforced the notion that Yanks are forever playing catch-up in this game. Yeah, it's fast, passionate, colorful and insanely-skilled, but if Americans want color, speed, passion and violence, they've got their very own NFL, thanks.

The NHL surely needs American dollars to survive in its present configuration, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's miracle on ice pried the interest door open. The ensuing rise of Gretzky and Lemieux followed by the New York Rangers' Stanley Cup win in 1994 marked a golden age that made it seem as if the sky was the limit -- well, if not the sky, then the roof of that building on the corner of Matters and Worth Watching. But the NHL miscalculated its appeal, overexpanded and then developed a lovely reputation for ineptitude with the 2004-05 lockout, its TV contract humiliation, and such chicanery as using distributed tickets to determine attendance while crickets and owls filled great stretches of its arenas. Along the way, the league also managed to alienate a chunk of its relatively small but devoted fan base that prized such charmingly peculiar traditions as the division names Smythe, Norris, Patrick and Adams. And that's where fighting comes in.

Hockey has long been synonymous with fistic displays –- a thorny dilemma when trying to broaden its appeal -- so upping the production of fat lips and shiners will surely please a significant segment of the already converted. Another portion of the fan base mainly frets about the level and consistency of officiating. Another chunk won’t watch the playoffs and Stanley Cup Final if their teams aren't in them. The NHL will never please everyone. What it needs to do is expend its best efforts on coddling its choir: preserving tradition, maintaining an exciting balance between offense and defense, cutting down on grievous injury, perhaps shortening the regular season and giving Canada another team. So far, the results to upgrade the product have been uneven: the rules changes that elminated the red line and cracked down on interference helped, but the shootout feels gimmicky and the schedule format that brings particular teams and stars to particular cities only once every three years leaves a lot to be desired.

Moving games to the obscure Versus allows for wall-to-wall coverage, but not enough fans can see it, and that's off-putting to say the least. Lack of visibility – only nine of 21 NHL market newspapers sent reporters to the Cup final – along with NBC not televising the entire series and the widely-trumpeted abysmal ratings reinforce the message that that not even the sport's premier events matter much. Heck, the FBI is still searching for this year's All-Star Game.

The NHL's biggest mistake was expecting to achieve the levels of cultural acceptance and economic return enjoyed by the NFL, NBA and MLB. Now it finds itself competing for time, attention and the discretionary buck with such other popular "sports" as poker, spelling bees and dancing while the costs of attending games create pain in the wallets of many working families. All the flying fists in the world won’t change that. Or will they?

What would it take to make you watch hockey? I suspect that paying you to do it would be the most likely start.


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The top three stars from Monday's Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals. Do you agree? Let's hear it:

By Brian Cazeneuve, SI.com

1. Andy McDonald, Anaheim - The Ducks' speedy forward had a career night with two goals, including one for the highlight films, and an assist on the winning goal.

2. Mike Fisher, Ottawa - The Senators' checking forward had a superb two-way game and recorded an assist on Ottawa's first goal by creating a turnover in the closing seconds of the first period.

3. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Anaheim - The Ducks' goaltender only made 21 saves but kept his team in the game during a rough first period, when Ottawa outshot Anaheim, 13-2.
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1:24 a.m. ET, 6/05/07

Picking up the Pronger slack

Posted by Brian Cazeneuve
The Ducks' Andy McDonald likely had the game of his life on Monday, posting two goals and one assist in victory.
AP
No Chris Pronger? No problem. For the second time in this playoff season, the Ducks overcame the suspension of their star defenseman to win a crucial fourth game of a series. Against the Red Wings in the Western Conference finals, the Ducks bounced back from a 5-0 thrashing at home to even their series against Detroit, 2-2. On Monday, they got some excellent contributions from unlikely sources to build a 3-1 series lead against the Ottawa Senators. The 3-2 victory in Scotiabank Place leaves the Ducks one game away from their first championship.

Without Pronger, Kent Huskins, a rookie defenseman who had seen limited ice during most of the playoffs, played 17 minutes, 31 seconds of mistake-free hockey -- more than he had ever seen in a playoff game. Dustin Penner, an inconsistent forward during the playoffs, made his third goal of the postseason a game-winner, even if Teemu Selanne did most of the work. And Andy McDonald had the game of his life, assisting on Penner's goal and scoring two of his own. "Anytime you lose a player like Chris Pronger," said Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, "you need other people to step to the forefront, and we did that."

Huskins' play was especially uplifting to the Ducks, who couldn't rely on Pronger's usual 30-minute effort while he sat out a one-game suspension for a blow to Dean McAmmond's head on Saturday. McAmmond did not dress for Ottawa. "It's amazing, a guy playing in the Stanley Cup 17 minutes in a crucial game," Carlyle said. "He earned that opportunity. He's a non-maintenance guy who has been able to find a way to make a contribution and play in the NHL."

Huskins didn't get on the score sheet, which should come as no surprise. In 52 NHL games in both the regular season and playoffs, the rookie has never scored an NHL goal and has just four assists. But he made the subtle plays that often cause young players to panic, chipping pucks out of the zone with Ottawa's speedy forwards in hot pursuit. He was on the ice for Anaheim's last two goals, marking the first time he was plus-2 in 43 games, dating back to Feb. 26 against San Jose. "I thought he stood out in his ability to retrieve pucks," Carlyle said. "It's not really rocket science, but it's a difficult thing to do. Maybe the most difficult thing to do is to recover pucks off dump-ins and soft-side dumps, knowing that the forechecker's got a bead on you."

The loss of Pronger left the Ducks with a difficult decision as to how to manage ice time for their defensemen, especially given the big load that Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin usually carry. "I don't think we want to get used to playing without Chris," said Niedermayer. "He's a great player. But obviously, when he's not there, we have to be at our absolute best. Everybody has to do their jobs ...

"Tonight I actually felt pretty good. I felt [assistant coach] Dave Farrish, who changes the defensemen, was rotating us out there at different times. We had different partners a lot during the game. I never felt that I was getting caught out there. For whatever reason, it seemed to work that we were able to rotate and get the players out there we wanted."

That enabled the Ducks to withstand a first period in which they were thoroughly outplayed. The Senators outshot them, 13-2, for the first 20 minutes but only got on the board when Daniel Alfredsson struck with 0.3 seconds left on the clock.

The Ducks' speed emerged in the second period. McDonald bonked a shot off the cross bar on one rush, tied the score at 10:06 and exactly a minute later, zoomed into the Ottawa zone, cut from the left side to the center of the ice, breezing past Anton Volchenkov like a Porsche ignoring a stop sign, then outwaited Sens goalie Ray Emery and beat him with a brilliant backhand.

"When you put people in situations and you see them execute to that level, it's a tribute to that individual's skill level," said Carlyle. "It's not easy to be as patient as he was, and those are big-league plays. That's a hockey player stepping up and playing desperate and executing at a very high level for his teammates."

The Ducks enjoyed a 13-4 shot advantage in the second period, a reflection of what often happens when a visiting team withstands the host's opening salvo, fueled by a raucous crowd.

In the third, Penner joined a play late, having changed after his linemates. Selanne, meanwhile, outflanked Ottawa defenseman Wade Redden, who made a crucial mistake by pinching to chase a loose puck in the center zone after Chris Phillips had broken his blade. Selanne fed him the puck and Penner knocked it in for what turned out to be the winning goal, four minutes into the period.

For the rest of the night, the Ducks turned back Ottawa rushes with the clam of a team that had been through this before rather than one looking for its first Cup and playing without its best defensive defenseman. They held the Sens to six shots in the third period at a time when Ottawa was pinching its defensemen and was nearly down to its two top lines.

"The guys in front of me made it easy," Ducks goalie J.S. Giguere said afterward. "They met a big challenge, without Chris."
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