PITTSBURGH – In theory, one of the least popular people in Pittsburgh during the Stanley Cup final should be the coach of the Detroit Red Wings.
The reality couldn’t be any more different for Mike Babcock. He’s been greeted with smiles and handshakes everywhere he’s gone in Steeltown.
“The cab driver on the way over here today thanked us, not just because he’s a Pittsburgh fan, but the fact that he’s going to make more money,” Babcock said Wednesday before Game 6 in the NHL’s championship series. “And I see that every day when I walk into the rink, the ladies there that are cleaning up all the time always say: ‘Coach, good job, let’s keep playing.’
“They get to feed their kids by doing that and I think that’s important. It’s good for our communities, it’s good for the league, and that’s positive.”
The NHL should probably send a note of thanks to everyone involved with the Red Wings and Penguins after the series they’ve put on.
It was a dream matchup that was in danger of turning into a dud after two easy wins by Detroit to open the series. However, it got dramatic after that and the six-period marathon the teams played in Game 5 essentially ensured that this Stanley Cup final will go down as a classic.
There will be a lot of people who remember it, too, because it was the most-watched NHL game in the U.S. in six years.
That’s only part of the evidence that the quality of this series might be helping sell the sport to some Americans. Rich Baker lives a couple hours away in Cleveland but was hanging around Mellon Arena on Wednesday afternoon and doing something totally unfamiliar – talking hockey.
“I’ve always been a big football guy,” he said. “I’ve tried to get into hockey before and never could. But after watching (Game 5), I became an instant hockey fan. It was exhilarating.”
Even the players have found time to appreciate the spectacle they’ve put on.
Red Wings defenceman Brett Lebda was less than a minute away from hoisting the silver trophy in Game 5 before seeing Pittsburgh rally for a win that extended the series. The disappointment of losing didn’t taint his overall opinion of the evening.
“If I wasn’t playing on this team and I was watching that as a fan, I think I’d be pretty excited,” said Lebda. “It was an up and down game, you had everything in there. The NHL looks for games like that.”
The league’s playoffs are arguably the most gruelling in all of professional sports, which sometimes affects the quality of hockey played in the final.
One key this year might be the fact that both of these teams were able to rest during the post-season before battling it out head-to-head. The Red Wings and Penguins were truly the class of their conferences and had a relatively easy time in the opening three rounds – Pittsburgh lost only twice before the final while Detroit was beaten just four times.
They were on a crash course all along and didn’t disappoint after finally getting to face each other.
“All the people I’ve talked to have said it’s been a great series,” said Penguins forward Jordan Staal. “Everyone’s pretty much on the edge of their seats the whole time. I believe it’s been fun hockey to watch – back and forth between two great teams.”
There is no shortage of memorable moments: Chris Osgood’s back-to-back shutouts to open the series in Detroit; Sidney Crosby’s two-goal performance to get Pittsburgh back in it with a win in Game 3; the Red Wings killing a 5-on-3 disadvantage in the third period of Game 4 to preserve a one-goal victory; and Marc-Andre Fleury’s 55 saves and Petr Sykora’s overtime winner in Game 5.
The list goes on and on. One player who wasn’t surprised by all the drama is veteran Red Wings forward Kris Draper.
“You’re talking about great hockey players on both sides,” he said. “We have the best defenceman in the game right now in Nick Lidstrom and two of the best two-way hockey players in (Henrik) Zetterberg and (Pavel) Datsyuk. Pittsburgh, with the young stars that they have – (Evgeni) Malkin, Crosby, Staal. …
“This series has been a lot of fun to be a part of.”
It’s what everyone had hoped for all long.
“I believe the people in the media, the referees, the coaches, the players, the league, we’re all in charge of selling the game,” said Babcock. “I’m a big believer in that.
“And the better job we do selling the game, the more of us get to work in it and the better the game is.”