For many years, hockey people and hockey executives have wondered how to draw in the "casual fan," and make them a regular NHL lover like us. Because hockey fans are nothing if not total zealots, wishing to spread the Gospel of Puck (as told by the Hockey Gods via divine inspiration to St. Lester Patrick, St. Toe Blake and St. Gordie Howe) to anyone who will listen. We've tried making the game more exciting through rule changes, HD television, technological improvements. Anything we can to get them to accept it. Because if they're not watching, we must just be selling it wrong, somehow.
After Tuesday night, we have to finally admit it to ourselves what I've been coming to terms with throughout this amazing opening round: It's not us, it's them.
Not after a Game 7 between the Chicago Blackhawks, last year's Stanley Cup Champions, and the Vancouver Canucks that pretty much did everything to nullify every criticism ever lobbed by your lazy local sports' columnist and you're idiot buddy who asks you what icing is. It was low scoring, but as gripping and intense as any action movie. It was fast-paced, but seemed to go on forever. It featured people from crazy, foreign lands like Europe and Canada, yet we were no less deterred to root both for and against these people. It featured a Canadian team, yet it'll likely be the most-watched game of the entire first round. It went long, into overtime, but no one minded. It was already a made-for-TV event - winner moves on and loser goes home - made even more simple with the overtime. Next goal wins it. Got it?
The goaltenders, the most covered up athletes, were the stars among stars. Corey Crawford, congratulations, the world knows your name today. What an unexpectedly fantastic, career-making goaltending effort by the rookie, who plied his trade in the minors for years, finally getting an opportunity, if only due to salary cap problems on the Hawks side. He was nothing short of brilliant, not at all to be blamed for either Canuck goal. His glove save, prone on the ice, of Ryan Kesler late in the third to keep it at 1-0 had me literally jumping up and down. I still can't believe he made the save.
On the other side, Roberto Luongo redeemed himself almost completely. The much-maligned net-minder - who'd been replaced in Game 6 after being pulled twice before - was terrific himself, quietly silencing (if such a thing as possible) everyone who lost faith in him. That his effort faded into the background in this game says so much about how terrific it was.
There was Jonathan Toews, the leader dubbed "Captain Serious," falling to his knees and still finding a way to get the shot off that tied the game with 1:56 left. On his knees. While short-handed. For a guy that hadn't scored in the entire series, that was ... well, let's just say he had great timing. The Blackhawks comeback was spurred on by Toews' making the statement after Game 3 that the team had been giving Vancouver too much credit, and that they could beat them. Based on his team's performance since, it's hard to argue.
Alex Burrows lived out the ultimate hockey rollercoaster tonight. He scored the game's first goal, then took Vancouver's first penalty. He missed on a penalty shot that could've put the game away. He took a penalty in overtime that could've left him one of Vancouver's (and hockey's) all time goats. But then, out of the box, he made a great, alert play to knock down a Chris Campoli clearing attempt, then simply went to the slot and let loose the shot of his life.
So many great, compelling stories were mashed into one, three-hour edition of men chasing pucks with sticks and skates. One out of thousands each year. One that just happened to be one of the greatest sporting events I've ever seen, hockey or otherwise. About six years ago, when the OLN television network was starting it's NHL coverage, they started a promotional campaign called "We Believe In Hockey." Well, with all due respect to anything else, I don't think I believe in anything in sports as much as I believe in hockey after that game. How about you?