There’s an interesting little dynamic going on in the parallel playoffs in the NBA and NHL. Last night, for the first time in the NBA Conference Finals, we had a different team win, as the Rockets blew out Golden State to stave off elimination. It is 3-1 now out West, with Game 5 a pretty safe bet for Golden State. It is 3-0 in the East, with a good chance that series ends tonight. It is unfair to say the Western Conference Finals have been uncompetitive – the Rockets played well in each of the first two games, but neither series is likely to go beyond five games. This comes after a NBA playoffs that have given us very few good series – only one great series with the Spurs vs. Clippers first round treasure. Over on the NHL side, it is a little bit different.
Last night, while the Rockets added some intrigue into a listless round, the Ducks and Blackhawks played their second consecutive 5-4 OT game. This time it didn’t go to two OTs (or three OTs as the ‘Hawks are wont to do), but it still provided great drama, greater skill, and a wonderful, bananas ending that the NBA has at times (‘Did you call bank?’… ‘No, I called game!’). The NHL playoffs had a few memorable first round series, and at least one very good second round series (Washington vs. New York), but these two Conference Finals have both been amazing, a sign of the level of parity in the NHL that just is not there right now in basketball. The lack of competitiveness in the NBA made the league consider moving the start of the NBA Finals up. The excess of it in the NHL has allowed us hockey fans to wade in the waters of people openly saying that these playoffs are superior.
I’ll concentrate on the Blackhawks vs. Ducks series because I think that while it has been no more well played than the fantastic Eastern Conference Finals, it has been more dramatic and more representative of a great NHL series. I had high hopes for Blackhawks vs. Ducks heading into the series. These were the two best teams in the Western Conference (apologies to the Blues, who won the Central Division). It is a rare treat in hockey to actually get the two best teams to square off against, and even rarer that when they do they actually bring out the best in each other. We all remember the upsets, the darlings that make deep runs, the goalies that stand on their heads, but generally when those teams make runs they don’t always play in great series (Ducks ’03, Flames ’04, Oilers ’06, Canadiens ’10, Kings ’12). You need two powerhouse teams to meet to have a great series this deep into the playoffs. You need teams that can roll four lines and have enough great players to make up for the ones that get hurt along the way. Both the Ducks and Blackhawks have it, and they’ve shown it.
This series has had so many amazing subplots. First is if the Ducks can get over the hump. This Ducks team may have had the most points in the Western Conference, but by regular season performance this was the weakest Ducks’ team of the last three years. The last two teams had their runs ended in Game 7 losses at home. While those brought up questions about their mental ability to play in the postseason, it also hardened them into the steely team they are today. The Ducks have the talent, and the leadership (their top two guys have won a Cup, lest people forget), but hadn’t had the results. Now they are getting that.
The Blackhawks have the whole dynasty angle. They’ve won twice in the last five years, and made the Conference Finals now 5 times in 7 years. They have a core of seven guys that were on all 5 of those teams (Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmersson), which is pretty incredible in today’s NHL). They have an air of calmness and unbeatable-ness that is pretty hard to overlook. They have a composure commensurate with that of a team that has lifted the Cup recently, and probably would be going for a threepeat had they not blown a late lead in Game 7 last year against the Kings. They are, in many ways, the anti-Ducks, which is what makes this series so fascinating.
People thought we were beyond 5-4 games in this NHL. There were many stories earlier in the playoffs about how goal scoring is down, and how the games needed more scoring. Aside from the fact that number of goals and excitement generated are only loosely correlated (see: any number of 2-1 wins this year), it isn’t even true (there was major news made when Tyler Seguin led the NHL in points with just 89 – of course league-wide, more goals were scored this year than last). Still, to have back-to-back games end at 5-4 and come out of thinking that those were fantastic games and not slop-fest just shows how well matched these two teams are. Game 4 was a sign of the Ducks growing up and also a sign of their amazing skill that penetrates that young roster. They turned a 1-3 deficit into a 4-3 lead in literally 37 seconds. Of course that game was also a sign of the Blackhawks resolve to hold onto their place on top of the West, tying the game late and winning their 6th straight multi-OT game. That game was exciting, end-to-end, with tons of shots and posts and great saves and continuous action.
Game 5 was a little slower, and played out in reverse. The Blackhawks did show their mental resolve and skill, but this time that came first, as they clawed back from 0-3 and 2-4 to tie the game with two goals from Jonathan Toews (of course, the captain) to send into OT. This time the Ducks showed how much they’ve grown up by scoring and winning the game, and not letting the fact that they were even playing OT take away from their ultimate goal. Game 5 was another showcase for the Ducks ridiculous skill level, with Cam Fowler (24) scoring a rocket shot, and Sami Vatanen (23) scoring another and setting up a beautiful goal. But it was also a sign of the ways this Ducks team is different – they don’t have to rely on Getlzaf and Perry for everything (just two goals this series), and they have a 2nd center to battle in the West in Ryan Kesler, who is playing Jonathan Toews to a draw.
I really want the Western Conference Finals to go the full 7 games – who wouldn’t when the collective level of play is so incredibly high. Not only is that the natural conclusion for two teams so evenly matched (four one goal games, three that went to OT, and the other was 2-1 midway through the 3rd period), but it would be the best way for either the Hawks to continue to show how special this run has been, or it would be the best way for the Ducks to show that they’re ready to move beyond the failings of the last two years and ride their even more youthful team further. This has been some of the best hockey I’ve seen – if you include the Lightning vs. Rangers series this is probably the best combination of Conference Finals since 2000. I don’t want this to end. I don’t want to only have one series to turn to. I don’t want to lose one of these two amazing teams. The Blackhawks and Ducks have done something so rare: make each other team better. They have contrasting styles, the Hawks with more speed and possession, the Ducks with more physical play and specific skills (shooting – the Ducks have had the top shooting percentage in the league three years running). But those two have combined to not cancel each other out, but supplement each other to create a higher level of intensity.
I like to mention the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals as much as I can. Not only for the obvious reason that it was a series the Devils won on their way to their most recent Stanley Cup, but also because it was similar in that sense. Here you had easily the two best teams in the Eastern Conference (arguably two best in the NHL), with contrasting styles (Senators ridiculous offense, Devils great defense) that matched up perfectly. They played 7-games, only two were anything but great, and Game 7 was a 3-2 nail-biter that ended with a goal with 2:10 to go in the 3rd period. That was a rare series where the top teams made each other better. We had that last year with the Kings and Blackhawks. We are having that again, in both conferences really, but this Western Conference series has been so special, mixing in greatness but also competing legacies, competing storylines, a dash of experienced winning vs. continuous choking, and we have ourselves a true classic.