Finally, after years of negativity, the NHL has a chance to build something it hasn't had in almost 15 years — momentum.
When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman asked Mark Messier to come collect the Stanley Cup in 1994, the league and its leader were at its apex. The New York Rangers had just ended a 54-year Cup drought, and interest in the league was spiking.
Then came two lockouts (one damaging, another crippling), the glowing puck, the trap and the allowance of assault and battery to prevent scoring chances.
Fans lost interest, the league and ESPN parted ways and hockey was pushed to the margins of professional sports in this country.
Now the league has its first marquee matchup on its greatest stage in more than a decade. Rule changes have made the style of play exponentially better than, say, five years ago, and this is the NHL's chance to put it on display.
If there is a dream scenario for Bettman to help recapture the casual fan, this is it. The Cup finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings, which begin Saturday night in Detroit, has star power led by the league's most recognizable player. It has two great TV markets and two teams with at least some level of tradition: This is the first time since 2001 that both teams in the finals have won a Cup before.
The series has the nostalgia of the Joe and the Winged Wheel and the Octopus in Detroit. The Red Wings have been the league's best-run franchise for 15 years. They have an incredible amount of experience with a combined 23 Cup rings in the dressing room, plus five guys who have been part of the last three title-winning teams in Detroit.
Although the Red Wings have been a model of consistency since the early 1990s, their opponent has been anything but. The Penguins nearly have left town twice in that span, saved once by their former franchise player buying the team and once by the promise of a new arena after a drawn-out battle for financing.
The Penguins represent the future of the league with their roster full of youth and elite talent. They have proved it does not take long to prosper in the "new NHL," going from accumulating the league's least points to the finals in two years and helping to foster hope in cities like the District and Los Angeles, which have franchises with similarly talented young cores.
It is a series that will be billed as youth vs. experience and offense vs. defense, but these two teams are more similar than it might seem. The Red Wings are one of the best defensive teams, as a league-low 184 goals allowed during the regular season attests.
But Detroit's offense doesn't receive enough credit. The Red Wings can score with anybody, led by world-class talents Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and a strong supporting cast. Part of Detroit's defensive success comes from the Red Wings' ability to control the puck and spend so much time on offense.
The Penguins' high-flying kids garner most of the attention, but Pittsburgh's prowess in its own end is the reason it has breezed through the first three rounds. Despite all the firepower, coach Michel Therrien has his team playing a defense-first system. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has matured into one of the league's best, and defenseman Sergei Gonchar (yes, the same turnover-prone Gonchar from his days in Washington) has improved dramatically, becoming one of the top two-way performers at his position.
All the ingredients are in place for a classic. Will the Red Wings win a fourth Cup in 12 years to put an exclamation point on the best post-Gretzky in Edmonton run, or will the Penguins start a new dynasty?
Regardless, this is the NHL's best chance to begin regaining its footing on the nation's sports landscape. After years of hearing about what hockey is not or what is wrong with the league, this is a chance to showcase what is right.