Hmm, the world must have shifted off its axis or something. But yes, it's true, I feel inspired to write about hockey. Rest assured though, that I won't be offering up any incisive comments on strategy or making any daring predictions as everyone now travels to the lower-seeded teams' homes. However, I haven't been completely oblivious, and can at least name the 16 teams that are in it.
Today, Sid the Kid Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins got even in Game 2 of their series with Ottawa thanks to a 4-3 win punctuated by a game-winning goal from none other than Gretzky Part Deux, Crosby himself. (Raise your hands if you didn't see this letdown coming from the Senators, those notorious playoff underachievers.) That's good news for the NHL. Even though the league can't express it in so many words, it's in its best interests for the Penguins to go as far as possible in these playoffs. In Pittsburgh, the NHL has a team loaded with exciting young talent, headlined by Crosby, who the league is hoping will be the sport's answer to Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods.
With some games now being broadcast nationally on NBC, as Pittsburgh-Ottawa was this afternoon, the league will likely catch a slight ratings uptick as general American sports fans channel surfing are likely to take a flier on a chance to see Crosby and the Pens in action in the playoffs. If for no other reason than to be a part of the excitement of Crosby's playoff debut or to see what the hype is all about, more people will tune in. There's a natural curiosity factor that's built in to a Penguins series at this moment that a series like Sabres-Islanders (no offense to Buffalo and Long Island) just can't match.
The interesting thing is, I think most people who aren't avid hockey fans will tell you that when they do watch a hockey game, they really enjoy it. It's fast, physical and full of action. But hockey will always play from behind in this country, and it needs that news hook for people to watch it. This is as close to as perfect a scenario as the NHL could ask for in building that hook. An American team with a potentially transcendent player making his playoff debut. And it helps that the Penguins play in a cold-weather city. Let's not forget that the last two Stanley Cup champions came from Raleigh, NC and Tampa, FL. There's still something that seems a little off about that, as plenty of Canadians I'm sure, will tell you. A Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh though, seems perfectly acceptable. The only way it could be better from the NHL's point of view was if he played for the New York Rangers.
Nonetheless, the Pens now have the upper hand in their first round series, and though this team isn't on the short list of Stanley Cup favorites, the league can hope for an extended run - and for good reason. Upsets that stretch into the conference finals or even the Stanley Cup Finals have been par for the course in the NHL of late. Edmonton, a #7 seed, was a game away from winning the Cup last year. Another #7 seed, Anaheim, memorably did the same in 2003. On the surface, the Pens appear to have that potential and more. Now it's time to see if Sid the Kid and his precocious mates can continue to deliver.