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Monday, June 19, 2006

They should put it out hours before the game, on the center ice dot, and just let it sit there through warmups and rawkin' video montages and anthems and starting lineups. Then there should be a pregnant pause -- the puck should drop ten seconds late -- before its white-gloved keepers retrieve it and stow it away for three hours or so, until one team or the other earns the right to take it and lift it as high as their arms allow.

Whatever hockey's popularity- destroying deficiencies happen to be, the Cup is not one of them. It is unchallenged as the best totem in sport. You do not touch it unless you have won it. Your name goes on it if you do, writ small next to the legends of the game. Once your name is on it you get a day with it to do what you please -- fish, perhaps. What would be the point of fishing with a basketball on a little pedestal or a messy plethora of flags? After one of the Red Wing championships, ex-Wolverines Aaron Ward and Mike Knuble brought it to a Michigan football game to the delight of all in attendance. Even from far away it was strangely awesome in person, in the Old Testament sense of the word. I briefly considered whether or not prostrating myself was appropriate.

They make new MLB/NBA/NFL championship trophies every year. Are there two Little Brown Jugs? How can a thing that has existed for less than a year be precious? They are just pretty metal. The Stanely Cup breathes.

While the Oilers have already brought my personal Year of Infinite Pain to its merciful conclusion with their magnifcient run (that of the Detroit area at large continues on, ironically due in no small part to these same Oilers), the stakes tonight are greater than even that provided by the Cup.

Let's review: Edmonton, a city of long-remembered glories now past, a small market team that bounced around the fringes of the playoffs for the past ten years without ever looking like doing anything much, slips into the playoffs largely due to the overriding incompetence of the Vancouver Canucks. In the first round they face juggernaut Detroit, all magnificent Swedes and billions of points. Owing largely to the incredible heroics of playoff-deadline pickup Dwayne Roloson, they squeak by the Wings despite being largely outplayed. Edmonton goes insane.

(Note: wherever you go in Canada, you are within 50 feet of a Tim Horton's.)

In the second round, San Jose -- possessing both the Rocket Richard winner and Joe Thornton -- batters the Oilers into goo in the first two games. Their crushing forecheck stakes them to a 2-0 lead and Edmonton looks dead in the water. Game three is the third-longest game in Oilers history. Midway through the second... well, Colby Cosh already said this better than I ever could:
For those of you who weren't watching, Chris Pronger tried to fire the puck off the glass and clear the Oilers' zone about halfway through the second period; Smyth, in particular Smyth's face, got in the way. He crumpled to the ice for a few seconds, got up after the play was whistled dead, and skated to the bench with a slightly crazed look in his eye as the fans chanted his name. Shortly thereafter, CBC's cameras cut to a closeup of a lake of blood and ivory, holding the shot as the linesman retrieved the broken dentition and Rexall Place staff moved in to scrape up the gory mess. Across the country, HDTV owners were suddenly realizing that new technology can be a mixed blessing. But Smyth returned to the game, having traded three teeth for a mouthful of stitches and the promise of six hours of dental surgery. At 12:40 a.m. local time, he created the overtime winner, wrapping around the net and bouncing a shot off Toskala's pads onto Shawn Horcoff's stick.
In game four, Edmonton was down 3-1 halfway through the second period before running off five straight goals. It was over in six. Bagpipers take to the streets.

Seemingly unstoppable after that five goal thirty minutes, Edmonton strangles the Ducks in the first two games of the conference finals, goes up 4-0 against Anahiem in game three and wins 5-4, and closes the Ducks out in five. Edmonton burns stuff and sings O Canada.

In the first game of the finals, Edmonton manages to blow a 3-0 lead, go down 4-3, and tie it. Diminutive defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron gets caught out of position and shoves a 'Cane into the goal... and talismanic goalie Roloson. Roloson is injured and out for the series. In comes much-reviled (former Black Bear!) Ty Conklin, who wanders out of the net and plays a puck off a defenseman's skate onto the waiting stick of Rod Brind'amour. Edmonton loses. Bagpipers notably absent from the street. Edmonton goes down 3-1 in the series, one of those games a shameful 5-0 stomping at the hands of the Canes. Game five goes to overtime. Steve Staios takes a penalty; the Canes have already scored three powerplay goals; doom, doom, go the drums of Mordor.

Not so fast, my friend:

One dominating 4-0 victory later, and the Oilers -- minus Smyth's teeth -- are poised on the cusp of one of the most remarkable runs in the history of the league -- of any league. The last time a team came back from 3-1 down, World War II was three years from completion. No eight seed has even reached the final before. As recently as two months ago the Oilers were the same as they ever were: pushing for that last playoff spot, waiting for their inevitable execution at the hands of faster, bigger, more skilled players. There's no shame in falling at the final hurdle.

But... Smytty's teeth! The sudden interest in ABBA in Edmonton! The hurling of Fine Alberta Beef onto the ice at Joe Louis! The incredibly super awesome Oiler blogosphere! Could fate really be so cruel as to give us all these things and then leave us at the very brink?

Yes, yes, yes. But maybe no.