While this year’s NBA Finals is a clash of titans, the third installment in an immensely successful summer blockbuster franchise, the 2017 Stanley Cup Final is set up like Rocky. Coming out of the Eastern Conference is the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending champions captained by the NHL’s biggest star. Coming out of the Western Conference is the Nashville Predators, the second wild card team (A.K.A. the #8 seed in a playoff format the gives me such a headache I find myself looking for my glasses only to find out I’m already wearing them while staring at the standings on NHL.com trying to make sense of it during the season) and a late-90s expansion team that had never been past the second round of the playoffs prior to this spring. While I will be surely be pulling for the Preds in this series, regardless of outcome, these teams bring out the best hockey has to offer.
The Penguins are hockey royalty at this point. Sure, there were some lean years in the time after the departures of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and before the arrivals of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but they are going for their fifth Stanley Cup win and are in their seventh trip to the Final in a 26 year span. With a win in the upcoming series, the Crosby/Malkin Era Penguins will have more Cups than their Lemieux/Jagr Era predecessors, and young goaltender Matt Murray will be well on his way to becoming this generation’s Ken Dryden.
While the Penguins are the well-established franchise looking to become the first to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings, the Predators have spent the last 20 years trying to prove they belong in this league. David Poile built this Nashville franchise patiently and methodically, and to borrow a take from Greg Wyshynski, embraced the role of being “Nashville’s Team” and not just a team in Nashville. That patience and that commitment to representing the community in a non-traditional hockey market such has Nashville has endeared the Preds to their fans and transformed Nashville into a sneaky-great hockey city. After this playoff run, Nashville is sneaky no more.
For years hockey fans and media members, primarily in Canadian and Original Six markets have bemoaned NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s strategy in the 1990s of moving teams from the north to the south, and popping up expansion franchises in mostly non-traditional hockey markets. The Quebec Nordiques were moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche, and won the Stanley Cup in their first season in their new city. The Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars, and won the Stanley Cup a few years later. The Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes within their first decade in Raleigh. The Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks made appearances in the Stanley Cup Final, and the Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup. While they have not had much playoff success to speak of, the Arizona Coyotes can justify their existence because last year’s #1 overall draft pick, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is a Scottsdale, Arizona native, and got into the sport from going to Yotes games. In each of these victories, both actual and moral, I can see Bettman wanting to scream “I told you so!” to all that thought putting hockey in the south was a terrible idea. Before this playoffs, Nashville was a great hockey city with great hockey fans, but now the rest of the hockey world is finally starting to notice.
The Predators’ incredible playoff run began in earnest by shocking hockey fans across North America when they swept the formidable Chicago Blackhawks and inspired my favorite Reddit post of all time from a dismayed Hawks fan, but it really began with a franchise-altering trade last summer. The Preds sent All-Star defenseman and team captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for a younger All-Star defenseman in P.K. Subban. It was a phenomenal trade for Nashville. Weber is a very good player, but Subban is better, younger, and on a better contract. The trade could have been justified for Montreal if replacing Subban with Weber led to greater success in the short term, but one year later, the Habs were eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers, and the Preds are already deeper in the playoffs than they have ever been.
Subban is one of the most exciting and charismatic players in the NHL, and as a Boston Bruins fan, I was thrilled to have him off the Canadiens. He is so likable. Even when he was in Montreal, I had such a hard time hating him the more I learned about him. Adding P.K. to a Predators team that was already trending in the right direction made them one of the NHL’s most intriguing teams this season. Even through their struggles, I thought they were better than their seeding, and I was not totally shocked by the way they disposed of Chicago.
On one hand, Nashville is not Rocky Balboa to Pittsburgh’s Apollo Creed because they have more than a puncher’s chance once the puck drops on the series tonight. They are a deep defensive team even beyond Subban, and they are getting great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, who seems to have turned the clocks back a couple years during this playoff run. While the Preds have suffered their share of injuries, most notably Ryan Johansen and team captain Mike Fisher (A.K.A. Mr. Carrie Underwood), the Pens have been without their best defenseman, Kris Letang, for the duration of the tournament. The injury induced mismatches could make for a very interesting series with Pittsburgh’s great forwards going against Nashville’s great defensemen.
On the other hand, Nashville is Rocky Balboa because Rocky did not need to win the first fight with Creed to build a seven movie franchise out of it. Rocky didn’t win the first time. All he had to do was go the distance to make a name for himself. The Preds are a young team, and their window to compete is wide open. They have already exceeded the expectations anyone had for them two months ago. While the Stanley Cup is about actual victories and not moral ones, the Preds have already won on some level. If nothing else, they have proven that they belong in the Stanley Cup Final, and their fans belong in the NHL.
The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.
The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.
Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.
In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.
My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.
I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.
Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.
AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.
What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.
This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages.
It finally happened, and in the most predictably Boston Bruins way possible. The Bruins fired head coach Claude Julien this Tuesday, in his tenth year in Boston, during the Patriots’ Super Bowl championship parade. Of course they were going to try and bury the fact that they were firing the coach who led them to their only Stanley Cup championship in the last 40 years on a day when the region was celebrating the greatest comeback in NFL history and a fifth Super Bowl victory that cemented Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the greatest coach and quarterback in history. Besides illustrating the Bruins’ antiquated public relations strategy that has not at all adapted for the age of social media, it also shows that from a hockey operations standpoint, that they still have no idea what they are doing. Sad.
The thing is, I was not against firing Claude Julien. I thought it was going to happen a year and a half ago when they fired Peter Chiarelli. Claude is a very good coach, but coaching turnover in hockey is higher that the other sports. For some perspective, last week, the St. Louis Blues fired Ken Hitchcock. Having been the head coach in St. Louis since 2011, Hitch was one of the longer tenured head coaches in the NHL, but Claude had been on the hot seat in Boston for years before Hitch even got to St. Louis. Winning the Stanley Cup in 2011 certainly helped Julien, but it felt like the Bruins might have fired him had they lost Game 7 to Tampa in the Conference Final that season.
Even going deep in the playoffs does not buy you much time in the NHL. Michel Therrien took the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, and got fired midway through the next season, only for Pittsburgh to get back to the Cup Final in 2009 and win it that time. Last season, when the Penguins again fired their coach midseason and won the Cup, it reminded people that teams typically get their act together a little bit when that kind of urgency is placed upon them, but I was not in favor of firing Claude for the sake of firing Claude. It’s one thing to fire your coach and win the Cup when you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. That will not be happening with Zdeno Chara turning 40 next month when he turned into a statue on the ice sometime in the last 18 months. Getting rid of Julien turns the page on an era in Bruins history, a successful era that I have eulogized multiple times at this point when I thought he was going to get canned, but it does not change how flawed the roster is, and I am not convinced the people in charge have a plan to fix it.
Team president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney now have one less person to blame besides themselves for the mess the Bruins are in right now. After missing the playoffs in the spring of 2015, Neely pinned the team’s failings on then-GM Peter Chiarelli, and Chiarelli deserved his share of blame for sure, but it never totally made sense why they kept Claude around when they promoted Sweeney to GM, except for the purpose of self preservation on the part of Neely and Sweeney. Why did they not fire Claude in the spring of 2016, when they missed the playoffs for a second straight year in an eerily similar manner? The only reason I can think of as a cynical Bruins fan is that they still did not have a plan, and they decided to put off firing Claude longer to distract from that fact. It’s behavior like that from the team that has bred institutional cynicism from Bruins fans that inspires signs like this alternative fact laden one I saw on Reddit this week from Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks:
I am not sure if this sign, starring White House Press Secretary and Melissa McCarthy character Sean Spicer, says more about the state of America or the state of the Boston Bruins, but either way, I do not feel good about where we are or where we might be going.
Regardless of how they go here, the Bruins are now in the Bruce Cassidy Era, and so far are 2-0, including today’s win over the Vancouver Canucks, and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Maybe replacing Julien with Cassidy, who was the head coach for the Providence Bruins of the AHL before joining Julien’s NHL staff this season, and previously served as head coach of the pre-Ovechkin Washington Capitals, will provide enough of a spark for the Bruins to get into the playoffs this year, but I do not expect them to do anything once they are there. Changing the coach will not change the fact that Zdeno Chara is a million years old, that Tuukka Rask has played more than he should because the backup goaltending situation is not as good as it traditionally has been (Remember when the Bruins had the tandem of Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in net for three straight years? That was awesome.), that Patrice Bergeron is not getting any younger, and that Brad Marchand’s goal scoring prime is being wasted on an inferior team that has blown a chance at the playoffs in two straight seasons.
I might not feel as down on the Bruins as I do if the other three teams in Boston were not regarded as “smart teams” in their respective leagues. The Patriots are the smartest team in the NFL, as evidenced by their five Super Bowl wins in an era when that is not supposed to happen, and the Red Sox and Celtics were early to embrace the analytics movements in baseball and basketball. The Bruins? They are trying to win a style of hockey that no longer exists, or they are trying to change with the times, depending on the day and who you ask, but in trying to remain competitive, they are not rebuilding, and I am not convinced they know how even if they are trying to.
It wasn’t quite the Miracle on Ice. Elimination would have to have been on the line for it to come close to the most iconic Olympic event in American history, but it was, however, an unforgettable event that is the perfect example of why the Winter Olympics are great. On the morning of February 15 (well, it was morning in the United States, anyway), the United States defeated host nation Russia in a showdown for the ages.
The names in this game were enough to make it epic. Patrick Kane. Ryan Kesler. Joe Pavelski. Ryan Callahan. Phil Kessel. Jonathan Quick. Pavel Datsyuk. Ilya Kovalchuk. Alex Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin. Sergei Bobrovsky. Who needs an All-Star Game when you can have the best players in the world playing for their respective countries. In the Olympics, they use a larger sheet of ice than the NHL does, which led to a more wide-open game for players to show off their speed and crisp passing skills.
Russia has a lot riding on this Olympic tournament. It’s more than the pressure of hosting the Olympics. Team USA consists entirely of NHL players, while the Russian team has mostly NHL talent with a handful of KHL players. This is about the Kontinental Hockey League trying to surpass the National Hockey League as the most prestigious hockey league on the planet. Ilya Kovalchuk could be playing in New Jersey, and Alexander Radulov could be playing in Nashville, but they chose to play in their native Russia. The KHL hopes this is the start of a new trend where the best European players will come back to Europe, and the young ones will never go to North America in the first place.
Regulation was not enough time to decide this game, and neither was overtime. The Unites States and Russia worked to a 2-2 draw that would have to be broken by a shootout. T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues went first for Team USA, and scored. Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins went first for Russia, and missed. James van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs went second for Team USA, and missed. Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings went second, and missed. Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks went third for the United States, and missed. Ilya Kovalchuk, who left behind the twelve remaining years of his NHL contract with the New Jersey Devils to return to the KHL last summer, went third for Russia, and scored. And so the shootout after the overtime went into extra innings.
An interesting difference between the NHL and Olympic shootout rules is that in the Olympics, after the third round of shootouts, a team can tap a player who has already shot to go again, whereas in the NHL, everyone has to go before anyone can go twice. Team USA coach Dan Bylsma decided to ride T. J. Oshie for all of the extra shootouts the way a baseball manager might ride a hot hitter in October. Oshie went 4 for 6 in the shoothout, while the Russian team went back and forth between Datsyuk and Kovalchuk. In the 8th round, Kovalchuk was stopped by American goaltender and UMass alum Jonathan Quick, and Oshie had a chance to put the Russians away. He got it past Sergei Bobrovsky one final time and bars all across America began to celebrate. It wasn’t even noon yet. It doesn’t get much better than that.
A win over a powerhouse like Russia improves the standing for the United States, but it does not mean they have the Gold Medal in the bag. Let’s not forget that Team USA beat Canada early on, but lost to the Neighbors to the North in sudden death overtime in the Gold Medal Game. T. J. Oshie has gone from being a name hockey fans know to a name the most casual of American sports fans will remember for a long time. That’s the beauty of the Olympics.