If you’re like me, you saw your worst NHL playoff nightmare come to fruition this past weekend with the coming of a Penguins-Flyers Eastern Conference Finals, and you’ll be downright tortured by the implications of Friday’s Game 1. One of these two reviled franchises will be playing for their opportunity to soil the Stanley Cup. It’s a conundrum. Who to root for? Better put: who to root against?
Traditionally, my ire is directed at the Penguins above all others, with the Flyers coming in a close second. A nasty little playoff series, however, can shift (dis)loyalties. Thus the question is further muddled: do I now hate the Flyers more given a contentious Conference Quarterfinals round that included a goalie-interferring Game 7 goal followed by a disputed-power-play Game 7 OT goal? Does such a thing override my years-long hate affair with the Penguins and cause me to hope they knock out the deserving-of-a-knockout Flyers? Or do I dare hope (even indirectly) that the Penguins go down and Lord of the Spear Danny Briere gets the chance to put his elfin cheap-shotting hands on the Cup?
It might appear a no-win situation. On the one hand we would have to hear from louty Philly fans for likely decades should they even make it to the Finals, and the team that brought their booing, coach-firing-calling fans a ten-game losing streak in the regular season would be waved in our faces as evidence of Philadelphia’s superiority in everything. On the other, possibly larger, hand, we have the prospect of goal-less-in-Round-2 Sidney Crosby and his slew-legging sidekick Evgeni Malkin playing for Stanley.
Here is where the daunting rooting situation receives a cold dose of clarifying. The Penguins must not be allowed to advance. The gaggingly awful vision of Briere being within spitting distance of the Cup pales with the downright daunting spectre of darlings Crosby, Malkin, et al being similarly so. You think Sid apologists are spinning crazily now in telling us how his zero goals in Round 2 and two playoff goals overall (one in an empty net) are practically heroic? Wait until he “leads” the Penguins into the Finals with a few more of his secondary assists specialties (throwing the puck blindly into the crease, often backhanded to further show his superior “vision”). The only thing worse could be rising darling Malkin scoring a few more points and avoiding a few more suspensions, a la conference semi-final disappointment LeBron James, thereby catapulting himself into ill-begotten Gretzky comparisons.
The coming days will be trying, as we see one of these wretched teams and fanbases celebrate a conference title and a trip to the Finals. The days following that will be all the more difficult, as one will be but four victories away from the Cup. In those days the Stars or Red Wings will never have been more precious to me. It will not be easy, seeing all of this. But the day will come when Gary Bettman beckons Chris Clark to get the Stanley Cup, which he will raise before 18,200+ at Verizon Center before handing it off to alternate captains (and co-Conn-Smythe winners) Alexander Ovechkin and Donald Brashear. On that day, the painful realization of a Pennsylvania team playing for the Cup will be but an awful-but-distant memory (like that whole Detroit sweep of the Flyers in 199-whatever; see, I’ve forgotten it).
Already in this not-necessarily-bleak offseason we’re seeing signs of hope, whether it be the stated openness of Cristobal Huet, he of the gaudy playoff-sealing goaltending stats, to remain with the Capitals, or the team’s wise desire to retain the services of sage-like Sergei Fedorov. Not a bad starting goaltender and third-line center to lead a Cup-lifting team. And finally, our long national Jaromir Jagr nightmare will be over, freeing up badly needed Ted Leonsis bucks to further cultivate this contender-in-waiting. Speaking of Jagr, possibly my favorite quote from him, ever (in a positively bafflingly way), when he was talking about his past and his future following the Rangers’ ousting from the playoffs: "Everybody doubted me when I was playing in Washington for whatever reason." Jaromir, Jaromir, Jaromir, where would we begin? We appreciate you yelling at Crosby to “get up” after one of his patented dives, but you’re still deluded.
So yes, these Eastern Conference Finals will suck. But we’ve been through worse. We’ve seen multiple Cowboys’ Super Bowl victories (and the Giants last year). We’ve seen the Eagles come close to getting one of their own (before faltering and keeping intact their 0-for-forever streak). We’ve endured the Rangers and Devils hoisting their own Cups. I suffered very closely first-hand through three Yankees’ championships in four years while at college in New York. So yes, its bad, but we can get through this.