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12:37 PM ET, 6/04/06
This Stanley Cup final looks familiar
Posted by Michael Farber
For all the huzzahs you will hear heaped on The New NHL in the next week or two as the Carolina-Edmonton final unfolds, believe only, say, about one-third of it.
This is not The New NHL final.
Indeed, it looks suspiciously like the old NHL Stanley Cup final, the last one, that delightful Tampa Bay-Calgary seven-game series in 2004, with Edmonton filling the role of its Alberta rival and the Hurricanes stepping into the Lightning slot.
Consider the similarities:
Like Tampa Bay, a fellow Southeast Division team, Carolina was an elite squad from the start of the regular season, led by a dynamic group of forwards and a relatively anonymous defense. (Certainly neither had a "franchise" defenseman, one of the supposed cornerstones of building a champion.) They both played an uptempo, puck-possession style. Both were coached by a talented but tightly-wound American-born coach, Peter Laviolette being a every bit the clenched fist that John Tortorella was two years ago.
Like Calgary, Edmonton was a middling team that changed goalies during the season (although Dwayne Roloson's acquisition came months later than Miikka Kiprusoff's). Each team had an unconventional No. 1 center -- Craig Conroy in Calgary, Shawn Horcoff in Edmonton. The strength of the teams was the back end and although Robyn Regehr is never going to be Edmonton's Chris Pronger, the Flames defenseman has been good enough to play internationally for Canada. The teams also both found unlikely scoring help from a player dripping with pixie dust, Martin Gélinas and his overtime goals in 2004 for the Flames and Fernando Pisani's nine goals, including three game winners, for the Oilers. I am not going to even get into the, uh, colorful postgame celebrations on the Red Mile (Calgary) and Whyte Avenue (Edmonton).
The truth of the matter is this: the Oilers and Hurricanes have done all the things that Stanley Cup finalists do -- played selflessly, sacrificed by blocking shots, won faceoffs and had consistently good if by no means immaculate goaltending. The verities of the game have not changed. The scores don't look like they were borrowed from the Arena Football League. The center has held. Metaphorically, of course. If the center holds during the Stanley Cup final, he is going to get two minutes every time. The anticipated march to the penalty box, the strict interpretation, the third-period and overtime calls, will be the only ways you will know for sure the NHL game is different.
If anything smacks of The New NHL about this final, it occurred months ago, off the ice, in the form of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Without the lockout-forged CBA, the Oilers would have been incapable of dealing for Pronger -- and signing him to a rich five-year contract -- and also possibly Michael Peca. The Oilers, a shoestring organization for 15 years, surely were emboldened by the salary cap when they plunged into the preseason player market. (The cap also took away a beloved Edmonton excuse. The "poor Oilers" was always a convenient cover-up for years of execrable drafting and mediocre player development.) If someone tries to lump the other star acquisitions on both teams -- Doug Weight and Mark Recchi in Carolina, Roloson and Sergei Samsonov in Edmonton -- into The New NHL category, forget it. Competitive teams, even the cash-strapped ones, rarely have been shy about taking on rent-a-players heading into the trading deadline, picking up a fraction of a season's salary for a shot at the Cup.
The 2006 final will have its twists and turns, a goal or a save or a controversy that marks it as unique and perhaps even memorable. But if it somehow looks familiar, perhaps it should.