There has been plenty of talk this spring about a widespread conspiracy in the NHL. Word in Philadelphia, Washington and Raleigh, N.C., is that the league wanted the Penguins to get to the Stanley Cup final and did everything it could to make it happen, going so far as to give beneficial calls by the referees to the sport's poster boy, Sidney Crosby. Well, I'm here this morning to dispute that vigorously. I don't think the NHL officials are nearly that smart.
They're just lucky, that's all.
Lucky to have the incomparable Crosby and Evgeni Malkin under the bright spotlight on hockey's grandest stage for what figures to be a marvelous two-week run.
And lucky to have the defending champion Detroit Red Wings as the opponents in a blockbuster sequel to last year's entertaining Cup final.
"I guess the only way it could be better is if it was us and Washington," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik was saying after practice yesterday. "But it's pretty good, isn't it?"
Pretty great, actually.
The Penguins-Washington series in the second round of these playoffs was indeed spectacular. For seven sublime games, Crosby and Capitals star Alex Ovechkin tried to outdo each other with Crosby getting the final edge with two goals and an assist in the clinching, 6-2 win. If you listened closely, you almost could hear the squeals of joy coming from the NHL office. They couldn't have dreamed up anything better to sell their game to an international audience.
The Penguins-Carolina series was next in the Eastern Conference final. The competition wasn't much -- the Penguins won four games in a row, the final three by lopsided scores -- but Malkin's performance was extraordinary. If you only Tivoed one game during this playoff grind, here's hoping it was Game 2 when he torched the Hurricanes for a hat trick. His third goal that night -- the spinning backhander that beat goaltender Cam Ward high -- was nothing less than otherworldly, prompting more hoots from the NHL suits.
Now, the really cool thing:
The best is yet to come.
It's nice to think Crosby and Malkin -- the top two point-getters and goal-scorers of this playoff year -- will have that big stage to themselves, but, sadly, that doesn't appear to be the case. I read somewhere just last night that indicated the Red Wings are planning to show up. They, too, have a few of the brighter lights in the NHL galaxy, adding to the merriment at league headquarters.
Really, you don't think anyone wanted to see a Penguins-Chicago final, do you? Or a Detroit-Carolina final?
Among those the Red Wings are expected to send to the party is Pavel Datsyuk, a finalist, along with Malkin and Ovechkin, for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP. Sure, he has a bad foot, but who among us won't be shocked if he doesn't play? There is defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, a favorite to win the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman for the seventh time in the past eight years. He's also banged up with the mysterious "lower-body injury," but you really don't think he's going to miss any of the fun, do you? There is Henrik Zetterberg, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs MVP last season when Detroit took out the Penguins in six games. There is the great Marian Hossa ...
Perhaps you have heard something about Hossa bailing on the Penguins after last season to sign with the Red Wings so he could -- these are his words now-- "try to go all the way and win the Stanley Cup."
Harrumphed Crosby yesterday, "That never was an issue in here," doing his very best to quiet the upcoming media storm.
Good luck with that, Kid.
"To be honest, no, not at all, he's no fun to play against," Orpik said, a little more willing to discuss the Hossa factor that figures to dominate the fortnight. "He's just so skilled and so dynamic as a player. It's his combination of speed and the fact that he's so big and strong that make him such a great player."
Maybe all of it won't make for dynamite television ratings anywhere but in Detroit, which likes to call itself "Hockeytown," and in Pittsburgh, which doesn't need an ego-inflating title to prove its passion for the game. Hockey just doesn't do well on TV, especially not on gorgeous late-spring evenings. That's unfortunate for the NHL honchos, I suppose, but it doesn't change the bottom line for us. As sports fans, we're lucky to be living where we're living. We're in for some show.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .