When a vicious street fight breaks out, what’s your first reaction?
Do you cower before the awesome might of righteous conflict? Do you shrink from confrontation like a petunia from a Panzer? Or do you revel in the haymakers and relish the calamity?
If you’re the latter type of person, your club badge and your brass knuckles are at the maitre d’ stand; we’ve been expecting you. Welcome to the world of playoff hockey, and the NHL Conference Finals. Hockey’s final four teams, the last remaining jumbled gunnysacks of teeth and bones and carbon fiber, are duking it out for a chance to date Lord Stanley’s silver daughter, the greatest trophy in in sports, the Stanley Cup.
Hockey–like steeplechase or a WW2 aerial battle–is more fun when you’ve got a horse in the race or a dog in the fight. With that in mind, I am here to provide you with a bandwagon lover-and-hater’s guide to the NHL Conference Finals.
So what’s it going to be: fight or flight?
Western Conference Finals
Ah, the western half of the United States! Sun-kissed beach bums’ bums and a whole lot of corn. It’s like the world’s least wholesome breakfast. And yet hockey, a sport primarily enjoyed by cold-weather interlopers and curiously Gallic vagabonds, has taken root in the west like freakishly large Monsanto wheat. Two franchises, the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues, remain, and both have their blemishes and seductions. Which bandwagon ruckus has room for your tuchus? Let’s take a look!
San Jose Sharks
Are you a masochist? Could you describe the contents of your search history in a preschool classroom without facing arrest? How many swear words do you know? If you answered, “yes,” “no,” and “a bunch” to these questions, you may just be a Sharks fan and not know it yet.
A team of destiny is just a cosmic tease, and the Sharks are the coy geishas of the NHL. Take a look at their recent decade-plus of futility, and you’ll wonder when Job took up residence in the Bay. They’ve made the playoffs 11 of the last 12 seasons, they’ve made the Western Conference Finals a third of those times (including back-to-back appearances in ’09-’10 and ’10-’11), and they have never advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals. They are the White Walkers of the North(ern part of California), and the psychological barrier to the Finals is their Wall.
If, like a yogurt connoisseur, you’re a fan of culture and consistency, the Sharks are your team. One of the truest, most unassailable barometers to a team’s year-over-year steadiness is how accurate their rosters remain on old video games. I, for one, am a man of meager means have have not purchased a new EA Sports NHL game in over four years. I just popped in my disc today (after blowing dust from it like an archeologist in a crypt) and loaded up the Sharks. There were the names NHL fans have to come to expect, a soothing balm in an inferno of change. Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, their nameplates guided me home like the signs on an off-ramp. The temptation to blow up a roster than can’t quite get over the hump is enormous and overwhelming; just witness literally every other team in the league. And yet, thanks to a combination of no-trade clauses and No Trade Claus (a jolly avatar who visits on Trade Deadline Eve), here the Sharks are once again.
St. Louis Blues
Of course, if we’re talking scorned perennial threats who can’t seem to get over the hump, we’re not just talking about the Sharks or a camel-borne terrorist militia. Playoff disappointment is St. Louis Blues Country, and history is your visa.
I’m not sure why people tend to forget this, but the Blues were part of the very first round of NHL expansion, when the league grew from its Original Six teams to twelve in 1967. With the exception of the now-defunct California Seals, the Blues are the only one of the original twelve franchises that has never won a Stanley Cup. Despite making it to the Finals each of their first three seasons, and then rattling off a run of 25 straight playoff years from 1980 to 2004 (the third-longest streak in American professional sports history), St. Louis has yet to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals since the Nixon administration.
Like the Nixon administration, this one is a tale of the tape. As in, packing tape. The St. Louis Rams moved to Los Angeles this season, and the MLB’s Cardinals are a joyless red state, like Soviet-era Ukraine. As a result, hockey has galvanized St. Louis. This Missouri city with an Illinois tumor has thrown the collective hopes and beer-fueled exaltations of a sports-crazed region behind the club wearing blue and maize, and the inertia of zealous fandom is a fun and easy one to get swept up in.
If the Blues do manage to make it to the Finals–or dare I posit, further–it will be due in large part to the contributions of Troy Brouwer, the veteran journeyman winger who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago before spending the last four seasons in Washington. Brouwer was dealt to the Blues this past offseason in exchange for TJ Oshie, the talented young winger and St. Louis favorite who made a heroic and fireworks-infused name for himself at the Sochi Olympics, when he took six consecutive shootout rounds to help the USA beat Russia. Oshie was–and probably remains–like a slimmed-down ex-lover: beloved in St. Louis, but sometimes a franchise has to move on from its past to realize its future. Just ask Han Solo.
Eastern Conference Finals
If a bit of good old-fashioned elitism is more your speed, have we got the bandwagons for you! One of the teams has a rich history of Stanley Cup championships, tracing its history back over forty years from its roots as a rust-belt, hard-scrabble northern steel town…yes, that feels right, doesn’t it? And the other team…well, they’re from Florida.
How can you know if the Penguins are the team for you? There’s a rather simple test, really. When watching Star Wars, do you root for the Death Star? Do you enjoy nature documentaries for the ruthlessly efficient manner in which a python crushes a rabbit? Did you lose a ton of money on Goliath?
The Penguins are one of only two remaining playoff teams that have ever won a Stanley Cup before, winning back-to-back titles in the early nineties under Mario Lemieux and the paradigm-shifting sounds of grunge, and in 2009 under Sidney Crosby and probably Ke$ha or someone. They are as storied as a Pennsylvania institution can be, shy of making a passable sandwich or an above-average mustard.
Why root for Pittsburgh? Let’s start from the top: Sidney Crosby. Since entering the NHL in 2005, Crosby has carried the mantle as the league’s designated deity and chosen cherub, possessing the type of all-around complete game and knee-weakening good looks that NHL commissioner and unconfirmed toe fungus imp Gary Bettman covets and craves in equal measure. He’s amassed 600 assists as the league’s top center, and he’s got the rings, the gold medals, and the MVPs to back it up. His mustache looks like an anemic caterpillar, but nobody’s perfect.
Out from Crosby, the Penguins play a fun brand of firewagon hockey. Speed kills, whether you’re the Washington Capitals or Sonny Bono. The Penguins have skated around and through opponents all season, and if all you know of hockey is that it’s more fun to watch than baseball, this high-flying team will be a revelation.
Of course, betting on the house doesn’t yield much of a return, but if you’re rooting for the Penguins this year, you’re morally bankrupt already.
Tampa Bay Lightning
They say to lead with your best hand, so I’m going to start with this: the Tampa Bay Lightning have a giant Tesla coil that zaps around the arena when they score. It’s as if PT Barnum and Sid from Toy Story collaborated on stadium design.
Tampa Bay is the hip, young team on the block, with their superstar young studs and their light-up Keds. Steven Stamkos, the two-time NHL goal scoring champion and young Dolph Lundgren lookalike, is perhaps the most vicious sniper not named Alex Ovechkin or played by Bradley Cooper. He’s fast, strong, and most importantly, fun to watch. Ditto, diminutive center Tyler Johnson, who at just 5’9” is small enough to be an effective avatar for vicarious tiny hockey people like myself.
The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004, back when Florida wasn’t yet Tebow Country and John Kerry was still a viable presidential candidate. They’ve been to the mountaintop before, but not in over a decade, and not from a city that doesn’t split its love between hockey and Jameis Winston. The Lightning are certainly the underdogs in the Eastern Conference. If you like shock and awe (literally), and you can’t bear to watch the Empire defeat the Rebellion again, throw your ohms and your resistors behind Tampa Bay and ride the Lightning.
With four good choices (okay, three) and some of the most exciting action in professional sports, the NHL Conference Finals have a team for everybody to get behind. So throw your hat in the ring, hitch your wagon to a star, and hang on for the ride. Playoff hockey is unlike anything else, and it’s so much more fun when you know whom to love. Okay, or hate.
Jason Rogers is a hockey writer and aspiring NHL commissioner. You should follow him on Twitter.