- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls did it. So did the New York Yankees.

If the NBA and Major League Baseball can produce champions that won three straight titles, why can’t hockey produce a team that can successfully defend the Stanley Cup even once?

No matter which team wins the Cup this season — longtime pretenders Ottawa, Anaheim and Minnesota or even past champion New Jersey — it will mark the 10th time in 11 years that the champion has failed to repeat.

That fact lends credence to the argument, common in NHL circles, that the Stanley Cup is the toughest title to win.

But why should it be?

NBA champions face the same grueling marathon of four best-of-7 series. In the NFL, which has produced two back-to-back champions in the past 11 years, the Super Bowl winner doesn’t even get to play the biggest game at home. And unlike baseball, weather is no factor in the NHL postseason.

However, it’s a rare NBA team that doesn’t repeat at least once: The San Antonio Spurs, who won it all in 1999, are the only such champion since 1986. All four NFL conference finalists in 2002 had gotten that far in one of the previous three seasons. And the Yankees have played in five of the past seven World Series.

By its very nature, hockey is different.

One basket means little in a game in which 180 points are scored. Home runs are more frequent than they used to be, but many runs are still manufactured via singles, walks and moving runners over. And it’s a rare NFL scoring drive that lasts only a play or two.

But goals in hockey are ephemeral. One second nothing much is happening on the ice. The next the puck is in the net, marking what could well be the only goal of the period or even the game — especially in the era of the neutral zone trap.

Superstars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant overcame the shortcomings of the Lakers’ three other starters to win title after title. The pitching of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling was enough for the Arizona Diamondbacks to win the 2001 World Series.

However, Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche is the only NHL player since 1990 to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player and the Stanley Cup in the same year.

Football is more akin to hockey as more of a complete team sport, but it only takes three or four playoff victories — perhaps none on the road — to win the Super Bowl. Capturing the Stanley Cup takes much more of a sustained effort.

“After we went to the finals with Vancouver [in 1994] and Washington [in 1998], we were so emotionally spent that when training camp started just three months later, it was tough to get that intensity back,” Capitals general manager George McPhee said.

Goals are at a premium in the playoffs so one fluky bounce of a puck off a skate can win a game and turn a series, especially as games drag on into overtime.

The Mighty Ducks are a prime example of a team getting the breaks and bounces: They have gone 9-1 in one-goal games and 5-0 in overtime through their first 12 games. Before Wednesday’s 4-0 victory they had no player among the top 30 playoff scorers, but the Ducks had the other main ingredient besides luck that can overcome a lack of offensive talent — a hot goalie.

Jean-Sebastian Giguere has been beaten just 19 times in 471 shots for a startling 1.24 goals-against average. Giguere, in his first playoffs, shut out the Wild in the first three games of the Western finals in an imitation of the Vancouver Canucks’ Kirk McLean (1994) and the Capitals’ Olie Kolzig (1998), each of whom recorded seven shutouts in 17 games en route to surprise finals appearances.

“Goalies like Giguere get in a zone for two or four weeks, and they can really control the game,” said Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, whose defending champion Wings were swept out of the first round after scoring six goals against the Ducks.

Giguere also is in net for every Mighty Ducks playoff game. Not even the rubber-armed Johnson and Schilling can start every postseason contest for the Diamondbacks.

And as McPhee said, such exceptional goalies are now the rule for successful playoff teams, where in the high-scoring 1980s they were the exception. When it only takes one dominant player to take down a champion, it’s harder to establish a dynasty.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see a team winning five Cups in a row, but it’s good to have teams that raise the bar,” Holland said. “There’s so much more parity than there used to be, and with goals harder to come by, you see a lot more upsets. The more talented team used to win most of the time.

“With what’s happened this year with Minnesota and Anaheim, every team has to be thinking, ‘That could be us next year.’”

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