Colorado and Florida begin a battle for a major championship tonight, and usually that might mean football. But this time the playing field is a hockey rink, and two very new teams are playing in the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup Finals.
The Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers get started in the best-of-seven series tonight - two teams which have never before been in a final. Florida makes the trip in just its third year of existence - the fastest trip to the big show ever by an expansion team. Colorado makes it after just its first season in Denver, where the team once known as the Quebec Nordiques moved last year. Besides being new teams, there is another common denominator: Neither team was expected to make it here, and both teams battled heavily favored opponents to make it this far.
The Avalanche beat Vancouver, Chicago, and Detroit to earn the right to play for the Stanley Cup. The biggest surprise was their six-game series over Detroit's Red Wings, the team with a record-setting regular season of 62 wins and enough offensive firepower to make most defensemen cringe. For the Panthers of Florida, the road was equally rough, requiring victories over Boston, Philadelphia, and the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins. When the season began last fall, Florida was one team no one suspected of getting near the finals.
"We were 500-to-1 odds to make the Stanley Cup," Panthers coach Doug MacLean said after his team eliminated Pittsburgh. "I thought we'd make the playoffs, but that was about it."
For Colorado, expectations were a little higher. The team won its division during the regular season, although its defensive play was average much of the year. But the acquisition of former Montreal Canadien goaltender Patrick Roy - considered one of the best goalies in NHL history - gave the team a midseason boost.
Roy's play in the postseason is legendary, and he hasn't let down Avalanche fans this spring.
"This is my fourth time going to the big dance," says Roy, who won Stanley Cup rings in 1986 and 1993 and whose Canadiens lost to Pittsburgh in the 1991 finals. "There is no doubt in my mind we have the team to win it."
For Avalanche coach Marc Crawford, the Panthers pose a healthy challenge. "They're a great story," Crawford says. "They're playing extremely well. Their goaltender is playing well and they're getting key performances from people throughout their lineup."
And it is a no-name lineup, without any superstars the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Mark Messier, or Mario Lemieux. Their big guns are named Dave Lowry, Stu Barnes, Ray Sheppard and Bill Lindsay, hardly names commonly on the lips of hockey aficionados. What has moved Florida through the playoffs has been their defense, nicknamed the Rat Pack. The pack has shut down some of the games' premier scorers, and its members will have their hands full again with Colorado.
The Avalanche will fire plenty of pucks at Panther goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, himself no slouch between the pipes. Captain Joe Sakic is the leading scorer in the playoffs with 17 goals so far, and is on a course to set a new playoff scoring record.
ONE key component of the team, however, will miss the first two games of the series. Claude Lemieux has been suspended by the league for his rough bodycheck of Red Wing Kris Draper in Game 6 of that series. But even his absence may not impact Colorado, as he missed most of two games in the Detroit series and Colorado still prevailed. Lemieux won two cups with the Montreal Canadiens, and last year was the Most Valuable Player of the playoffs as he led the New Jersey Devils to the championship.
But for most of the Panther players, there are no fond memories of Stanley Cup championships, and their playoff run has already been more than they expected.
"I spent astronomical hours pretending to be in the Stanley Cup final. That's the dream of every kid who plays hockey in Canada," Dave Lowry said Saturday after the Panthers became the only third-year team in NHL history to reach the final since the major expansion of 1967. "To give ourselves the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup, I'm just ecstatic."
The first two games of the series are tonight and Thursday in Denver. The series then shifts to Miami over the weekend for Games 3 and 4. Most hockey experts pick Colorado to take the series within six games, but those same experts picked Florida to lose to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. This series could easily go either way.