Thursday, April 16, 2009

La Coupe Stanley

La Coupe Stanley. I just love to say that. I don’t know why. There’s just something about mixing French and English that seems weird.

It may not be the most popular sports championship, but it is certainly one of the biggest. Literally. I can’t think of any team sports trophy that has the names of every team winner engraved on it. It’s the sports trophy answer to 6-foot-7, 263-pound Hal Gill.

It’s also the only sports championship where the sport is a totally different game than the regular season.

Sure, it’s still hockey, in that 12 players with sticks will bat a puck back and forth across a sheet of ice. But the intensity makes it a completely different game. When announcers say, during a lively stretch of a regular season game, that the teams are playing “tournament hockey,” it’s a big compliment.

The NHL has the longest season of all the major American sports, in a sport that is rivaled only by football in toughness. It’s impossible to maintain intensity from October to June, so there are bound to be lulls in the action. Try to stay awake at 1 a.m. as the Penguins play the L.A. Kings in December, and you’ll wonder how you became a hockey fan.

But all that is forgotten this week as 16 teams spend all their reserves in pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

A good example is Wednesday’s 4-1 Game 1 win by the Penguins over the Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins have been improving steadily over the past few weeks with the addition of Coach Dan Bylsma, the return to action of powerful shooter Sergei Gonchar, and skillful trades that brought Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams to the ‘Burgh. But Wednesday night, they reached yet another level, including a 33-27 edge in shots and a 38-21 advantage on faceoffs.

Regardless of who your team is, they will play like you’ve never seen them before in the next few days. Everybody wants to win La Coupe Stanley.

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