Exorcising Demons

07May07

Out in Northern California, it essentially comes down to a single game between two franchises filled with frustration over the past few years. In Buffalo and in Ottawa, the anticipation is building as two franchises reflect on their past failures, with only one of them being able to get just a chance at the big dream.

It’s going to be a big week in the NHL starting with Monday night’s San Jose/Detroit Game 6. The other Western semifinal between Anaheim and Vancouver didn’t hold as much story or drama as the Sharks/Red Wings battle (other than the intrigue of seeing just how many shots Roberto Luongo could stop and still lose). The Sharks appeared to be a team trending in the right direction — young, strong, fast, and extremely skilled. More importantly, the Sharks were on a roll at the right time, but still had to battle the demons of choking away a 2-0 lead against Edmonton last season. For the Red Wings, it’s been failure after failure following the 2002 Stanley Cup championship, and with the torch firmly passed to Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and co., the Wings were out to demonstrate that the next generation could live up to the legacy of Steve Yzerman’s teams.

With Game 6 looming, the Sharks have carved out a disappearing act worthy of last season’s meltdown against Edmonton. If the Sharks pull out a victory and wind up winning Game 7, the young San Jose team will have shown a mental toughness they had been sorely lacking even going back to the Calgary series in 2004. If the Red Wings hold on, they’re one step closer to restoring the legacy of Hockeytown. In many ways, this series represents a defining time for the current iteration of the franchise; for either team, a loss indicates an overall lack of preparation and consistency that will force the respective team leaders to look in the mirror and find out what was missing.

Out on the East Coast, the story is just beginning for Ottawa and Buffalo. Buffalo was the trendy pick to win the Stanley Cup, and why not? With more goal scorers than checkers and Team USA’s goalie of the future, the Sabres seemed poised to be unstoppable — except they seemed to face the same consistency issues that the Sharks and the Red Wings currently do. The Sabres may have beaten the Islanders in five games, but anyone who actually watched the series knew that the Long Island team was taking the fight to the Sabres every game. Against the Rangers, the Sabres continued the Jekyll and Hyde routine, looking like world beaters in one period and looking confused the next.

Up in Canada’s capital, the Senators have dealt with the label of being a Stanley Cup contenders for the past several years. Each season brought failure upon failure, and everything from the goaltending to the coaching to Daniel Alfredsson’s leadership was questioned. This season started out similarly discombobulated, with Martin Gerber crashing and burning in goal, and injuries making the trade of Martin Havlat seemingly foolish. Then, around the turn of the calendar year, Bryan Murray’s team seemed to get it together, and in their first-round series against Sidney Crosby’s talented Penguins, the Senators seemed like everything a championship team should be: talented, fast, and — most importantly — mentally and physically tough. Despite all the high-flying Senators teams of the past, this incarnation seems to be the most likely to actually advance to the Stanley Cup final.

What does failure mean for Buffalo or Ottawa? For the Sabres, they carry the weight of an entire city’s sports hopes, fueled by decades of frustration, bad luck, missed field goals, and cheated Stanley Cups. Sabres fans truly believe that this team is destined to be the squad that finally brings Buffalo glory — and with the impending free agency of co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, it may be the their best shot for a while. Failure simply is not an option for the Sabres and their fans. In Ottawa, Senators fans carried a hint of jaded cynicism regarding their team; resounding playoff victories against the Penguins and the Devils have transformed that into cautious optimism. Failure would fire a thunderbolt of “What else do we have to do?” cynicism back through the fanbase. After all, if this combination of talent, grit, defense, and goaltending wouldn’t work, what could?

In San Jose, it’s a question of leadership. In Detroit, it’s a measurement against history. In Ottawa, it’s the scars of past failures. In Buffalo, it’s the curse of a city. Starting Monday night, one team in the west will exorcise their demons, only to be met by Cup-favorite for yet another test in the gauntlet. One team in the east will get to claim the title of Team of Destiny that’s so highly coveted by both franchise’s dedicated fan bases.

All the while, a group of Ducks in Southern California are watching, waiting, and probably enjoying the fact that all those those are still beating the snot out of each other.

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