A short while back, as Pittsburgh and Detroit continued mowing down playoff opponents en route to a Stanley Cup finals that almost seemed ordained, a friend wrote to say the NHL was in trouble if it couldn't sell this one.
The real problem with the game isn't on the ice - it's better than it's been in a long, long while - but between the ears of casual fans. They're so used to hearing the sport needs fixing that few will invest the time to watch a game until after the repairs are finished. That's bad news for a league that did so coming out of a lockout nearly three years ago. Especially since we could be presented with a classic this time around.
Rule changes opened up play and returned the emphasis on skill, benefiting a handful of talented and marketable youngsters led by the Penguins' Sidney Crosby. The owners got cost certainty and TV partners willing to roll the dice with high-definition telecasts, meaning the excitement the game generates translates better to small-but-still-growing screens, if only because it isn't cut off at the edges.
The returns have been modest so far. Cable partner Versus is posting better ratings than the league had when last seen on ESPN before the lockout, and network partner NBC last month exercised an option to extend its schedule of regular-season Sunday games and some playoffs. They'll split the Stanley Cup for their troubles, with Saturday night's opener in Detroit and Game 2 on Versus, and NBC picking it up the rest of the way.
Even the most casual fan shouldn't have a problem picking up the theme. Just find a picture of the two captains. Pittsburgh's Crosby is an offensive maestro who plays like Wayne Gretzky did when he was 20, and most key members of his supporting cast are a few years on either side of that line. Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom is 38, a grizzled but still sublimely talented defenseman, and Chris Chelios (age 46) isn't the only guy he will rely on who would look at home posing for an AARP ad.
The matchup also features rising power vs. established one, an organization that came out of the lockup devastated and benefited from the draft vs. one that came out loaded and had to learn how to live with the new economic order. Both have adjusted nicely on the fly.
arian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis and Hal Gill - who provided some badly needed lift.
But the Pittsburgh's return to the salad days of the early 1990s, when current owner Mario Lemieux was the attraction, had just as much to do with defense.
Too many of the guys coach Michael Therrien inherited from Ed Olczyk at the end of 2005 thought that was what happened between their last shot and their next one. After a loss to the Oilers just 11 games into his tenure, Therrien threw a fit that wound up on YouTube. He called his team's defensive effort soft and shortsighted, concluding, ``We should take 50 per cent of their salaries because they play only 50 per cent of the time.'' Instead of giving money back, the Penguins, from Crosby down to the reserves, learned to become two-way players.
The Red Wings are hardly offensively challenged. Even after they lost their top playoff scorer, Johan Franzen, because of concussion-like symptoms after sweeping Colorado, they've hardly missed a beat. Detroit is more risk-averse, it doesn't like to trade scoring chances as eagerly as Pittsburgh, but fireworks won't be a problem.
In short, these are two teams top heavy in skilled players meeting at a moment when the game is set up to showcase those abilities in a way it hasn't been for two decades or so.
Most of the ``fix-it'' syndromes being thrown around the last few years dropped the blame for the sorry state of affairs squarely in commissioner Gary Bettman's lap. He came over to the NHL after a stint as NBA boss David Stern's right-hand man and he's never shaken the reputation he picked up when, shortly after his appointment, Pat Williams, general manager of the NBA's Orlando Magic at the time, joked, ``I gave Gary Bettman a puck once, and he spent the rest of the day trying to open it up.''
Bettman deserves some of the scorn, especially for the lockout and an ambitious plan to put the game on an equal footing with the other major North American sports by expanding in haphazard fashion. Hockey may never be successfully grafted onto locales where ice occurs naturally only in drink glasses.
But this Stanley Cup is about as good a product as can be at the moment. It's every bit as good as what the NBA is offering, way better than regular-season baseball, and worth returning to if you get distracted by something on the fairway or racetrack.
What Bettman should be worrying about, as my friend pointed out not too long ago, is what to do next if all that turns out not be good enough.
---
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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