I can't remember the last time I saw such an incredible hockey game! Last night's game had everything a playoff hockey game should have: lead changes, a last-minute goal, excellent goaltending, and long overtimes.
Critics, and there are plenty of them, still refer to the NHL as an inferior league, but they need to get over it.
Last season, the NHL was only on network TV during the weekend daytime, and even then, playoff overtime got booted for Preakness Prerace. This year when it came to a programming crunch, NBC realized how much more exciting an overtime Stanley Cup game can be than Leno...and that's not a knock on Jay.
Finally, last night, the NHL got what it needed for the first time since it before it locked out it's players four years ago.
The league had the opportunity to showcase its top teams and premier player on a medium that everyone could watch. Even if for just the short term, Gary Bettman has managed to shed his worst decision a commissioner (and he's made enough to bad decisions to make Isiah Thomas look smart) and got the NHL on network, so everyone could watch.
The NHL has been a TV outcast since Bettman decided after the lockout that for a little more money, he'd accept a deal with OLN ("The Outdoor Life Network"!? Doesn't a ring a bell!? Now known as "Versus"!? Still nothing!?) instead of ESPN.
In talking to an ESPN employee about the decision last spring, he said ESPN decided to low-ball the NHL, knowing they were coming back from the lockout. OLN offered them $1 million more, so Bettman decided to go with that offer.
Think about it for a second! The profit the NHL got from OLN is practically nothing when compared to the amount of money the NHL could have gained by the exposure it would get on ESPN. Case in point: look how much ESPN promotes NASCAR and the WNBA now that it carries those sports.
The most unfortunate part is that the post lockout was truly the start of a new era for the NHL, but no one has been able to see the change. The old crop of players retired, and the NHL has been flooded with new talent: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin, Jason Spezza, The Staal Brothers (three of them, with the fourth on the way), Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Dion Phaneuf, Paul Stastny, Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury, Mike Richards. Unless you're a big NHL fan like myself, you probably haven't heard of half these players. That's Gary Bettman's fault; that's why he should have been fired years ago!
Last night was finally a break through. Finally, I could turn on network TV and watch of the NHL's best young players (Crosby, Malkin, Whitney, Fleury, and Jordan Staal) play against the league's most dominant team (the Detroit Red Wings) for the most jaw-dropping trophy in sports (the Stanley Cup). I didn't need some special channel package, I didn't even need cable, I could have watched this with a black and white TV and a couple of rabbit ears.
And, what a great game it was to watch.
On the brink of elimination, Pittsburgh started off like they needed to: scoring their first road goal of the series, taking a 2-0 lead fifteen minutes into the game, and immediately putting the Red Wings on the defensive in their own building.
While the NHL is getting younger, the Red Wings still represent the old order and despite a slow start, showed how experience can trump youth. They closed the gap early in the second period and came out storming in the third period, outshooting the Pens 14-4. Pavel Datsyuk tied the game at 6:43 of the third on the power play and veteran defenseman Brian Rafalski rocked the Joe with the go-ahead goal at 9:23.
Detroit continued to press and appeared ready to hoist their ninth Stanley Cup and first since back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998. Detroit fans stood for the "last" five minutes of the game, chanting "we want the Cup!"
Unheralded Max Talbot wouldn't give it to him. He stuffed his own rebound with 35 seconds left to extend the Penguins season into overtime.
Overtime in the NHL Playoffs is a sports fanatic's dream. It can't be replicated in any other sport: Baseball can only be ended in the bottom of an inning. Basketball isn't sudden death. Football very rarely ends with a big play and is often a grueling drive into field goal range. Even soccer has to have some momentum at one end of the field or another. Hockey can end instantly and without warning.
One of the most defining and contrasting overtime moments in NHL history was Game 1 of the 1994 Stanley Cup. The Vancouver Canucks won the game in overtime on an odd man rush only moments after the New York Rangers' Brian Leetch had hit the cross bar at the other end. The puck had bounced back past Leetch on the ricochet and the Canucks went on a full ice 2-on-1 the other way for the game winner. The Cup hungry fans at Madison Square Garden went from ecstatically loud to stunningly shocked. [The Rangers came back to win in seven].
Game Five's overtime didn't let anyone down last night. The Red Wings dominated the Penguins throughout overtime but goaltender Fleury proved equal to the task, stopping 55 shots in the game and all 24 he would see through the multiple overtime sessions. It was truly a coming out party for Fleury, who disappointed on early returns after being drafted 1st overall in 2003, but, at only 23, has matured to become lights out this season, especially during his first prolonged playoff.
In each of the firs two overtimes, the Penguins got relief from the Detroit onslaught with two power plays on marginal goaltender interference calls, but they didn't take advantage like they should have and stayed behind the 8-ball.
With time ticking down in the second overtime, Penguins Petr Sykora turned to NBC Ice Level broadcaster, Pierre McGuire, who was between the two team's benches, and told him he was going to score. A minute later, Sykora appeared to have jinxed his team with his optimism as he headed to the box for a hooking penalty.
At that point, it appeared Detroit should lock it up. The Penguins had fought hard through five periods, but late in the fifth frame, Detroit had the momentum, the strength, and the man-advantage, and it was their time to wrap it up for their eager fans.
The Penguins and Fleury locked down and managed to get to a third overtime.
Midway through the period, the Wings' Jiri Hudler was whistled for an unfortunate high stick that caught Pens' defenseman Rob Scuderi in the face. Less than 30 seconds later, Sykora held true to his word to McGuire and buried the game winner on a pass from the 21-year old Malkin.
The win gave the Penguins new life and sent them back to their raucous crowd for Game 6.
It's still an uphill battle for the Penguins to win the series.
And, it's an uphill battle for the NHL to get back to the prominence it once had in American sports.
However, Monday night's game was a big step for the young players on Pittsburgh to accomplish both of those goals.
This is an exciting league with excellent young players, and it's about time that it got the opportunity to show itself off.
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