Far East Vs. Far West
Whoever gets to the Stanley Cup final, it's going to be the Air Miles Classic.
Could be Boston travelling to Vancouver, or to San Jose. Or Tampa Bay taking on the Canucks or Sharks.
Wow. The shortest distance required would be Tampa and San Jose, and they're 3,800 kilometres apart by air. The Cup final could be a 20,000 kilometre sojourn - or more - for the lucky contestants.
The Sharks became the fourth member of the NHL's Final Four with a dramatic, thrilling 3-2 triumph over Detroit on Thursday night in northern California. Of the quartet of teams remaining, neither of the western reps have ever won the Stanley Cup, while Boston hasn't won since '72. Tampa, by comparison, is the franchise most familiar with winning it all, having taken the Cup for a skate in 2004.
None of the remaining four clubs, meanwhile, has ever played any of the others in an NHL playoff series.
So it'll be all new ground to be plowed the rest of the way.
The Sharks barely survived, hanging on by their fins against a Detroit club that refused to give up, fighting from behind after falling behind three games to none to force Game 7 in Silicon Valley. Once more, they trailed 3-1 in the third period, the same third period margin they'd blown in Game 5, but a Pavel Datsyuk goal with 5:01 remaining in regulation made the dying moments memorable.
Twice, Patrick Marleau made key defensive plays to thwart chances by the Wings, who entered the game without Johan Franzen and lost Daniel Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi to injuries during the hard-hitting, gruelling match. The critical difference, in the end, was while San Jose was able to get a power play goal from Devin Setoguchi in the first, the Detroit extra-strength unit was uncharacteristically punchless, going 0-4, including a glorious chance on a Torrey Mitchell slashing foul in the final minutes.
Marleau got the winner on a goal-mouth tap-in, while Joe Thornton set up Setoguchi's goal and played a whale of a game. Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were both fabulous for Detroit, but simply didn't have enough help from the other Red Wings forwards during the series to avoid being eliminated by San Jose for the second straight year.
For Detroit, the question will be not good enough, or just not good enough to beat the Sharks? GM Ken Holland has a very tough assessment to make of his club, particuarly with the possibility that 41-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom may not return next season.
The Wings are fiercely competitive, skilled and entertaining, but they are also the NHL's oldest team that has seen injuries become a familiar story in recent playoff seasons. Of the three forwards that couldn't contribute in Game 7, Franzen is 31, Cleary is 32 and Bertuzzi is 36. Kris Draper (39) and Mike Modano (40) may retire. Datsyuk is 32 and Zetterberg is 30, and both were hampered by injuries in these playoffs. Tomas Holmstrom, meanwhile, is 38, and Brian Rafalski is 37.
The Wings were gallant and dogged to the end. But at some point, Holland will have to make the transition to a younger team, and he'll have to decide now if that time should be this summer for a remarkable franchise that hasn't missed the playoffs since 1990, the year Steven Stamkos was born.
For the Sharks, so long tagged as underachievers, it's their third visit ever to the Western Conference final, and second consecutive advance to that point in the NHL playoffs. Last year, they were swept in four by Chicago, and this spring they'll be looking to make the next step against a Vancouver club that itself hopes this is its year after being the NHL's best team during the regular season.
San Jose's youngsters, particularly Setoguchi and Logan Couture, look to be coming of age at exactly the same time the older Sharks - Thornton, Marleau, Dan Boyle - appear to have good miles left on their chassis. They also have, in Antti Niemi, a goalie with a Stanley Cup, while Vancouver can counter with Olympic gold medal winner Roberto Luongo.
For this conference final, the Sharks will be underdogs. After what they went through to get here, they may welcome the distinction.