Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Of Hockey Jesus and Sporting Salvation

[The awesome image above was stolen from Melt Your Face Off, the most entertaining hockey blog around]

I consider myself a hockey orphan. When I was nine years old, the Hartford Whalers played their final game. I cried in the stands as the players skated in circles on the ice and waved goodbye. It’s been twelve years, and a lot has happened. Namely, I got older, got bitter, and kept only a passing interest in hockey. There were a lot of reasons for this: another strike, a lack of exciting players, and most importantly, there was no home team to root for.

I started noticing a change in the last year. The NHL has found its new superstars in Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and, more notably, Hockey Jesus Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Towards the end of the season, a Capital-Penguins match up seemed likely, which would not only be exciting, but would also bring the NHL unheard of amounts of press. Sadly, it didn’t happen: the Capitals were knocked out in the first round, and the Penguins moved past the Ottawa Senators to face the New York Rangers. The Rangers are a team I should be rooting for, especially since I moved to Brooklyn and found myself a short subway ride from Madison Square Garden. This playoff series was the perfect time to choose a new team to root for.

Given my new home, the Rangers should be the obvious choice. A seasoned team that was a Cup favorite from the beginning of the season, the Rangers were on their way up after the pre-season acquisitions of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. In a lot of ways, the Rangers might be a better team – a team that plays near-flawless hockey, comprised of talented, seasoned players like Drury, Gomez, and former Penguin superstar Jaromir Jagr. Truth be told, there’s something boring about that. Their play is of the sort that most non-hockey fans use as an example of why they can’t get into a game. They threw everything they had at the Penguins, often out-shooting, maybe even outplaying them.

In reality, I found myself drawn to Crosby, Malkin, and their teammates on the Penguins, who most consider to be the thrilling future of a sport few care about. The Penguins are young, unpredictable, versatile, and eager to prove themselves. Crosby and Malkin are 20 and 21, respectively. Wayne Gretzky was leading the Edmonton Oilers to new heights around this age– can they live up to the hype? It’s a storyline even those uninterested in hockey can’t resist.

From the start of the series, the Penguins began to have an aura of inevitability Hillary Clinton could only dream of: they were going to the Stanley Cup finals whether the Rangers liked it or not. The first game found them down by three goals, only to end with a final score of 5-4, Crosby assisting a goal that bounced off of Malkin’s leg and into the net to clinch it. More great press for an entertaining team. Everyone’s happy…except the Rangers, of course.

The next two games went along these lines. The only bright spot that kept me rooting for the Rangers at all was Sean Avery, the team’s resident goon. A former flame of Elisha Cuthbert, he seems straight out of the movie Slap Shot, antagonizing and beating the poor souls that crossed his path. However, he’s a bit of an enigma, especially since a recent New Yorker profile outed him as a fashionista hoping to land a summer internship with Vogue (I swear to God, I’m not making this up). More importantly, aggression is kryptonite to the Penguins, too young and baby faced to use much physical contact, with Sidney Crosby accused of taking dives – this isn’t the NHL where the unwritten rule was to avoid hitting Gretzky at all costs. Avery was voted the most hated player in the NHL by his peers – after inspiring a new rule banning the petty roughhousing of goaltenders, that honor won’t change any time soon. While many dislike Avery, he’s a bright spot to me on the Rangers – unafraid to roughhouse and let his passion manifest in the most destructive way possible. At the end of the second straight Rangers loss, he again provoked a goalie, this time poking his stick at goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and starting a fight in the game’s closing seconds.

After the third game of the series (where the Penguins were out-shot but still dominant), Avery was rushed to the hospital with a lacerated spleen and declared finished for the season. As if Avery’s absence forced them to compensate, the Rangers woke up and dominated in game four, not only winning, but also roughing up the Penguins as much as possible, even frustrating Malkin and Crosby to the point that both ended up in the penalty box. After the game, a lot of hockey press claimed that the Penguins would have to overcome “adversity” after their first loss of the playoffs. More than anything, people were just looking for more reasons to make every Penguins game important, to put Crosby on TV screens and get people interested in hockey again.

Frankly, it’s working. During the fifth and final game of the series, the Penguins scored a series of flashy goals. The Rangers struck back and sent the game to overtime. As soon as the newly-acquired Marian Hossa scored the winning goal for the Penguins, I heard a neighbor in my apartment building scream like the Giants had just won the Super Bowl again. Everyone I talk to seems interested in what Sid the Kid and the newly popular Malkin will do next. While I’m betraying the city I call home, I’m excited to watch hockey again, unembarrassed to talk about games in front of people more interested in Project Runway. For now, I’m just going to ride the bandwagon and hope the Penguins don’t leave their city any time soon. Their next series, the conference finals, is against interstate rivals the Philadelphia Flyers. How perfect.

The Decemberists - The Sporting Life