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Archive for Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cup Finals showcase for NHL changes

June 21, 2006

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— There was more scoring, plenty of intriguing storylines and hardly anyone watching at home in the U.S.

The first Stanley Cup Finals of the post-lockout era showcased all the positive steps taken by the NHL to get over its debilitating labor dispute - but also highlighted the daunting challenge of persuading anyone beyond the hard-core fans to notice.

Two small-market teams, Carolina and Edmonton, were the last ones standing. Score one for the salary cap.

The Hurricanes won their first Stanley Cup title in a thrilling seven-game series that featured a penalty shot goal and a short-handed goal in overtime, two firsts for the finals. Score one for the clampdown on hooking, grabbing and all the other thuggish tactics that dumbed the game down.

In a sign of more wide-open play and increased power-play chances, Carolina combined with the Oilers for 35 goals in all, up more than a goal a game over the last championship series in 2004 and tied for the second highest-scoring finals (based on per-game average) in the last decade.

"We really had to earn that one," Carolina's Ray Whitney said after the down-to-the-wire finale, which wasn't decided until Justin Williams' empty-net goal with just over a minute remaining. "It was relentless."

Still, the NHL continued to fight a losing battle in its bid to be viewed as more than a fringe sport based on that most valued of numbers - American TV ratings.

Several of Univision's telenovelas proved more popular than NBC's telecast of Game 3, which was seen by only 2.5 million people. Game 6 wasn't much better at 2.9 million, compared with 14.3 million watching the fifth game of the NBA finals.

In the ultimate slap, the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City didn't even show the penultimate game of the Stanley Cup finals, going with a tape-delayed telecast of a Major League Soccer contest.

Those who did tune in to hockey saw a highly entertaining series. Give credit to the Oilers, the first eighth-seeded team to make the finals under the current format, for fighting back after losing the first two games and three of the first four. They even managed to do it with without starting goalie Dwayne Roloson, who had played every minute of the playoffs for Edmonton until he went down with a knee injury in Game 1.

Jussi Markkanen, a third-stringer who had not played in more than three months, took over in the nets and did a remarkable job after getting blown out 5-0 in Game 2. The gritty Oilers, lacking star power beyond defenseman Chris Pronger, managed to keep up with a Carolina team that had 11 more wins and 17 more points during the regular season.

In the end, the Hurricanes brought the Stanley Cup to Tobacco Road, gaining a foothold in a territory best known for college basketball and NASCAR racing.

It was a stirring triumph for 30-something players such as Whitney, Rod Brind'Amour, Glen Wesley, Doug Weight and Bret Hedican - all of whom got their name on hockey's most treasured prize for the first time.

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