Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Another One For The Ages
[Pavel's still mad about that hit in 2007]
We have spent a lot of time talking about different aspects of this series, from Hiller's struggles to the contributing factors of Detroit's success and we even hated on Versus' coverage, or lack thereof, of this series. What a lot of people are forgetting is that since 2003, these are the two most successful post-season teams. We've each won a Cup, and the Ducks actually have more Cup appearances, 2 to the Wings' 1. Anyone who has followed this rivalry since the early days in 1997 knows that there is a lot of hate between these two teams. I'm sure some Detroit fans blame us for costing them a Cup in 2007, and possibly 2003. Thus, it's no surprise that there were so many fireworks at the end of last night's game. So Arthur, what makes the Anaheim-Detroit rivalry one of the most compelling in hockey?
Let me point out that 2002 was a Cup year for Detroit, so the Ducks don't really have an appreciable lead in Cup appearances when measuring from 2003.
In my opinion, there has never been a Ducks/Wings series without a quality storyline. Detroit has faced Anaheim following each of its last three championships, answering the bell of the Stanley Cup hangover against the same team for the last decade. When these teams first locked horns in '97, Detroit went on to win its first Cup in 42 years, and ten years later, Anaheim beat the Red Wings to advance to the Finals that brought them their only Stanley Cup. It's never a meaningless series when it's Detroit/Anaheim, but here are my three reasons that this is one of the best rivalries in hockey:
1) Fun to watch. Hradek over at the Entertainment Sports Programming Network said it best after Game 3 when he asked if we could watch these teams play a Best of 15 series instead of 7. Anaheim and Detroit declare war every time they face each other. The sweeps aren't sweeps when it's Ducks/Wings. The teams played a combined 10 overtime periods in their 1997 and 2003 sweeps of one another, and the '99 series was filled with goals knocked in above the crossbar, Kariya hitting three posts (but no net) and the general shenanigans we've come to love. In fact, if you add up the all-time Playoff OT minutes between these teams, you probably have enough for another series. And every minute of that time is filled with contentious hockey: they draw blood, they question each other's heart and grit and they steal games from their opponent more often than they best them.
2) Respect. For the longest time, the Ducks were the NHL's answer to Rodney Dangerfield. They routinely dropped the gloves, and had the most potent offensive talents in the NHL. For that, other teams regularly took runs at their skill players, and the talking heads classified them as a purely offensive team, not built for serious playoff contention. No respect, I tell ya. Detroit, by contrast, could win an entire playoff series with nothing but the respect the other team gave them. How many times did we hear a coach in the 90s say of Detroit, "We can't respect these guys too much." It was a legitimate key to the series in a best-of-7 against the Wings. There was always the danger you'd get caught watching Fedorov skate around you, or not put a solid enough check on Shanahan.
Yet, when the Ducks tangled with Detroit, they brought the most dangerous weapon possible with them: the belief they could win. At first, you could chalk it up to a young franchise being too stupid to realize it couldn't beat the Red Wings, but a lights out goaltender and a one-man forecheck in 2003 proved it possible. Since then, the Ducks have morphed into the Big Bad Ducks, but it's the same story. Like the Big Bad Bruins of old, the Ducks don't respect anyone that comes into their building, least of all the Red Wings. And that lack of respect has got to stick in the craw of a Detroit franchise with that much history, that much consistent success and that many skill players. But it's also got to stick in the Ducks' craw that no matter what they do, the Red Wings will have the reputation of being classy and skilled, while the Ducks are Public Enemy #1 for every officiating crew in the NHL.
3) Litmus test in the West. Since 2002, only ONE Western Conference Finals was played without one of these two teams. They are the lineal champions in the West. You can't EARN a trip to the Finals if you didn't go through Detroit or Anaheim. When they face each other, people are prone to speculate (as they have this year) that the Ducks and Wings are deciding the Stanley Cup champion in THEIR series, not the one played weeks later.
As I've said before, I am a long time Ducks fan, and as a result, I have a massive chip on my shoulder. That also means that I hate the Red Wings. As you already stated Arthur, the Ducks were always seen as a flashy offensive team, the Kariya and Selanne show, that never had what it took to be a serious NHL team in the playoffs or otherwise. Then, when we ground out a 7-game win over a gritty Phoenix team, back when Roenick and Tkachuk occupied their top line, it was a step in the right direction. After that, we ran into a wall against Detroit. I believe 3 of the 4 games in that sweep went into overtime. Two years later, we were swept again, and that is when I began to hate Detroit. More importantly, it's also when the Ducks decided to fight for respect as an organization.
As you've mentioned, there is a new litmus test in the West, i.e. the Cup representative has to go through us or them, but the Red Wings have always been a litmus test for Anaheim. Detroit is an Original 6 franchise, and even though they had that 42-year hiatus from Cup glory, when we were starting to develop as a franchise and create an identity, Detroit was a league powerhouse. They were a model franchise, and in a way, I've always seen them as Anaheim's older brother, at least in terms of the franchise wars. After defeats in '97 and '99, what Anaheim fans wanted more than anything was that match up in 2003. In a way, Detroit has been a gatekeeper for Anaheim's respect as a franchise, and I think that is what makes this series so amazing. It may not seem tough to people who refuse to pay attention to a west coast team, but this rivalry belongs in the mythic category. It runs deeper than teams hating each other for ending playoff runs. We fight for the respect of an Original 6 franchise that always seems to be on our path to success, as a constant reminder of what we are trying to become. Red Wings fans seem to see us as a threat, an upstart mickey-mouse hockey club that has no right to even be in the NHL, let alone deserve the honor of hoisting a Cup. In some ways. I think Anaheim/Detroit demonstrates the battle between hockey purists and those who see the economic advantages of a modern league. While we do play a more old skool style of play in Anaheim, I think some people will never forget that we only exist because Disney rode the marketing wave a little too long. Detroit, on the other hand, is an Original 6 in a renaissance that has yielded more Cups in the past 12 years than any other franchise.
As a result of this sort of clash of hockey ideology, I see the players doing more to win than in other series. The reason why the Anaheim/Detroit playoff matchups are always such great hockey is that you have two teams who refuse to lose. It's usually a long stretch of mistake free, hard-hitting, grind-it-out hockey, where a superstar can, at any moment, change the momentum of the game. I know my answer is a little abstract, but that's what makes sports so great. It is so symbolic, yet so material. All I'm saying is that this rivalry has budded into the type of thing that no one from either camp will ever forget. It has offered the promise of hard fought hockey that every fan can appreciate, and most importantly, the games matter. The Cup winner might not come from this series, simply because of the damage these two teams have done to each other, but the winner of this series will definitely have the edge and confidence to hoist the Cup should the opportunity arise.