We're taking Memorial Day off, as you've surely noticed — though we're excited LeBron and the Jazz have given us something to pay attention to — but we are doing one post: A preview of the Stanley Cup Finals. They drop the puck tonight at 8 p.m. ET, with the Anaheim (Not Mighty) Ducks against the Ottawa Senators.
As has been established repeatedly, we're idiots about hockey, so we brought in the big guns to preview this one: Eric McErlain, purveyor of all that is good and righteous at Off Wing Opinion. (He's also a columnist for NBC Sports and lead blogger for AOL Fanhouse NHL.) The guy's a legend in this sports blogging world, and nobody knows his hockey better than he does.
Sure, the finals of a major sports league are going to be on Versus, but that's no reason not to care, right? After the jump, Eric lets you know what you gotta know. And we'll see you all tomorrow.
Is there any sports league in recent memory that has gone into its championship round with more negative mojo than the NHL? Just when the righteous anger over NBC's dumping of Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals to Versus was beginning to subside, Gary Bettman and company found another rake to step on as the closely guarded news of the sale of the Nashville Predators broke smack dab in the middle of a lengthy six day layoff before the start of the Stanley Cup Finals.
With nothing else to cover, and with the opening game of the Finals being played in Anaheim at end of a long holiday weekend in the U.S., talk inevitably turned to the disastrous tenure of NHL "Commissioner for Life" Gary Bettman and the abject failure of his strategy to create a national television footprint by expanding the league to the American Southeast and West.
What all of this rage is obscuring — and let's be honest, rage is the only emotion that any fans feel about no matter the reason or the season when the subject is Commissioner Bettman — is that we're on the cusp of what promises to be a pretty compelling matchup on the ice, ironically, one that's between two teams that were part of the post-1990 expansion era and only recently were rescued from the scrap heap.
To say that the Ottawa Senators have had an interesting history leading up to their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals would be an understatement. Perhaps the most frustrating season in their history had to be 2002-03, where the Senators posted 113 points in the regular season to win the President's Trophy only a few months after then-owner Rod Bryden took the team into bankruptcy. On-ice failure matched off-ice embarrassment in the Eastern Conference Finals when the Sens were dispatched by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Devils in seven games.
But the Senators team that went into bankruptcy with Rod Bryden came out of it with pharmaceutical magnate Eugene Melnyk. The new stability in ownership mirrored the steady performance in the regular season, as the Sens remained at the top of the regular season standings even as playoff success continued to elude them.
Ironically, one of Bryden's last decisions as owner the season when he had the team declare bankruptcy was to bring old NHL hand John Muckler in to run the club as General Manager. After the lockout, Muckler rolled the dice and sent the popular Marian Hossa to Atlanta along with Greg DeVries for a man looking for another chance in another city: Winger Dany Heatley. Safe to say, it's not a deal most general managers would have made, but Heatley has made the most of his second chance in the NHL, far from the scene of a car accident he was responsible for in Atlanta that killed teammate Dan Snyder.
Heatley has posted back-to-back 50 goal seasons in Ottawa, as part of what's become one of the best lines in all of hockey along with Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza.
But perhaps the best decisions Muckler ever made involved the players that he let get away. First, it was less than a year ago that Zdeno Chara, who Ottawa had acquired from the New York Islanders in what is now widely seen as a highway robbery deal, played out his contract with the Senators to test the free agent market. Figuring that retaining Chara would mean breaking up the rest of his team, Muckler let him walk and sign a five-year $37.5 million deal with Boston.
Rather than try to replace Chara outright, Muckler did a pair of deals that more than compensated for the 6'9" Chara's absence, signing free agent Joe Corvo from the LA Kings and acquiring Tom Preissing in a three-way deal with the Sharks and the Blackhawks. The result: Ottawa hardly missed the Slovak giant, as Ottawa continued to boast the deepest, and best balanced defensive corps in the NHL.
Next, Muckler said goodbye to the oft-injured Dominik Hasek, opting instead to sign Martin Gerber from the Carolina Hurricanes. Though Gerber would eventually make his mark in Ottawa holding down a spot on the end of the bench for the emerging Ray Emery, it seems as if the Swiss goalie has a magic all his own.
But before this season's version of the Senators gelled into an unstoppable postseason force, they and head coach Bryan Murray — best known for underachieving everywhere else he's been behind the bench — struggled through the first half of the season, barely making it to .500 by January 1. But after that, there was no team in hockey that could touch them, as they posted a 27-7-8 record the rest of the way. Perhaps the most memorable of those games came on February 22 and 24, when the Sens traded 6-5 decisions with the Buffalo Sabres amidst a blizzard of fisticuffs triggered in the first game when Chris Neil took out Buffalo co-captain Chris Drury with a vicious, but legal hit.
Click here for the February 24 followup bout. After those two games, it should have been clear to everyone that these weren't your Daigle/Yashin version of the Senators, something that Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Buffalo discovered to their chagrin in the playoffs.
As for the Anaheim Ducks, the original Mickey Mouse franchise, this marks their second trip to the Finals overall and second in the last four seasons. With a Disney pedigree, most hardcore NHL fans hated the Ducks through most of their early history. After all, what self-respecting hockey fan would catch themselves pulling for a team named after a series of hockey flicks aimed at the under 12 set? The ire only increased when, in an early demonstration of corporate synergy, the Ducks seemed to become the official home team of ESPN 2. Later demonstrations of this strategy manifested themselves in five-minute SportsCenter features on Mark Schlereth's career as a soap opera actor as well as "ESPN Hollywood." Don't say you weren't warned.
But even Disney's deep pockets had their limits, as the company dumped the Ducks just one season after their first trip to the Finals when they sold the team to local Anaheim businessman Henry Samueli for just $50 million, a $25 million loss from the expansion fee that Disney paid when they were granted the franchise in 1993.
Though the Ducks, like so many other recent failed Stanley Cup Finalists, failed to even make the playoffs the following season, Samueli quickly got to work putting the franchise on sounder footing. Only three days after his purchase of the team was approved by the league's Board of Governors, Samueil hired ex-Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke as the Ducks GM.
Since taking over, it's clear that Burke has put his stamp on this Ducks team, one that played tougher than any other in the NHL, leading the league in fighting majors in both the regular season and the playoffs. Even better, with most of the hockey press calling for a crackdown on fighting, Burke was the one General Manager to propose modifying the instigator rule.
Burke, more so than any player on the Ducks, is this team's outsized personality. A master at playing the media, Burke's masterpiece might have been his trade deadline blog over at USA Today that managed to tick off just about anybody who was mentioned in it, while Burke stood pat at the deadline refusing to part with any prospects for any of the playoff rentals flooding the market.
But Burke's personality shouldn't obscure his hockey smarts, and in particular three deals that put the Ducks in the position they're in today. First, he re-imported one-time Duck Teemu Selanne back into the fold, with the Finn responding in much the same manner as Heatley in Ottawa, scoring 98 goals in the last two seasons after he looked finished following a stint in Colorado before the lockout.
Burke did one better when he shipped sure-fire Hall of Famer Sergei Federov to Columbus in exchange for Tyler Wright (who?) and Francois Beauchemin. In doing so, not only did Burke get the aging Federov's contract off the books in Anaheim, he also acquired Beauchemin, who has turned into a rock on defense and is regularly clocking better than 30 minutes of ice time per night in the playoffs. Even better, losing Federov meant that Colgate's Andy McDonald finally got the ice time he needed to mature into a front-line center, a chance he's made the most of, along with Anaheim forwards Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and reclamation project Chris Kunitz (out for remainder of the playoffs).
But the deal that will go down in hockey history that put Anaheim back in the Finals wasn't triggered by Burke at all, but rather by unspecified personal family reasons cited by Chris Pronger, as he pushed the Oilers to move him just hours after the Oilers lost Game Seven of the 2006 Finals to Carolina. In the end it was Burke who won the auction, sending Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid, a first rounder in 2007, a second round pick in 2008 and a conditional first rounder in 2008 for the former league MVP and Norris Trophy winner — a deal that they'll be hating in Edmonton for a long time coming.
The results were pretty easy to see, with the Ducks starting hot, playing through a lengthy injury to Pronger and finishing things out well enough to secure the second seed in the playoffs, where they finished off three of the best goalies in the league in Niklas Backstrom, Roberto Luongo and Hasek.
While the Senators have held a physical edge in every series thus far in the playoffs, they're going to meet their match in an Anaheim team that's gotten used to running their opponents off the ice. In that light, I can't help but to expect this series to become a game of attrition, with Ottawa's depth both up front and on the blue line to exact a toll on a Ducks team that may rely too much on Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Beauchemin — a trio that regularly puts in 30 plus minutes a night during the playoffs.
The next critical matchup has to be Ottawa's top line of Heatley, Alfredsson and Spezza against Anaheim's checking line of Travis Moen, Rob Niedermayer (too many Niedermayers!) and Sami Pahlsson. Simply put, we're looking at the best scoring line in the league against the best checking line in the league. Given that Ottawa's trio have been just about the surest bet in the postseason, my best guess is that things aren't going to change now. But if they fail, I'm not sold on the ability of Ottawa's other three lines to pick up the slack.
Weighing most heavily on my mind when it comes to the Ducks were the significant periods during the Western Conference Finals when they were simply outplayed by the Detroit Red Wings, most recently in Game Six where the Red Wings very nearly made up a three goal deficit in the third period. The difference in those moments was always J.S. Giguere, who we can count on to steal at least one game in the Finals. Unfortunately for Ottawa, I'm not sure the same sort of performance is in the cards for Ray Emery, a goalie who has simply done everything Ottawa has asked of him up to this point. However, as my NHL Fanhouse colleague Tom Luongo has pointed out, that's mainly due to the fact that Ottawa has kept the game simple for Emery, and not allowing their opponents to take advantage of Emery's greatest weakness, his lateral movement.
So while I've already gone on the record at Off Wing picking Anaheim to win it all, all the indicators, save one, are pointing in Ottawa's favor. Then again, some believe that the Ducks are the first real test that the Senators have faced in this playoff, and I'm inclined to agree given the massive gap between the conferences that was revealed during the regular season.
My best instincts tell me Ducks in seven, but only because Giguere steps up and saves Anaheim's bacon.