America’s traditional winter major league professional sports are ready to find their champions, as the calendar approaches summer. The Golden State Warriors are facing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, and the Tampa Bay Lightning is facing the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final. One thing these series have in common is speed. Both the NBA and NHL seem to be returning to the ‘80s where scoring was king and excitement was everywhere.
Each league took a decidedly defensive turn in the ‘90s after scoring explosions in the decade before. The NBA had the Lakers ‘Showtime,’ and their clashes with Dr. J’s ‘76ers and later the Boston Celtics. The NHL had Wayne Gretzky and the greatest scoring team of all-time in Edmonton. Once the ‘90s arrived, the NBA was changed by the ‘Bad Boys’ in Detroit, emphasizing physicality. The Bulls then incorporated that into their game, and the scoring dropped. The emergence of the neutral zone trap in the middle of the decade (and ever growing equipment on the goaltenders) slowed hockey down and scoring dropped there also.
But the times have changed. Flow and continuity are back. In the NBA it was the San Antonio Spurs spurring on the return of smooth play. Gregg Popovich’s five-man system brought offense back; more athletic teams like the Clippers took a high-flying approach; and Golden State has introduced the ‘three’ into that philosophy awing fans everywhere with the speed and efficiency with which they ran offense this season.
In the NHL you can credit one team for bringing great offensive hockey back: the Chicago Blackhawks. Coach Joel Quenneville’s cycling approach and transition style from defense to forwards with speed and accuracy gave them an edge over the slower defensive-oriented teams. Chicago won the Cup in 2010 and 2013. The game has come full circle like pro basketball has, and the Tampa Bay Lightning scored the most goals in the league this season with a fast-break style on ice.
What all of this brings us to are two very exciting matchups. In the NBA, Golden State was a league-best 67-15 in the regular season, leading the league in scoring and rolling to a 12-3 mark in the playoffs beating Houston 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals. Cleveland has been 12-2 in the postseason, sweeping Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals despite the ongoing knee injuries of Kyrie Irving. It is the fifth consecutive Finals for LeBron James, who returned home and led his team through tremendous adversity all season.
For the Stanley Cup, Chicago and Tampa Bay each arrive off of seven-game wins in the conference finals. Captain Jonathan Toews has been relentless, scoring a pair in ‘game seven’ against Anaheim to win the West. Patrick Kane has 10 goals and 10 assists so far in the playoffs. Chicago has won mostly in spite of goaltender Corey Crawford. The same was said of Tampa’s net minder Ben Bishop, until a 2-0 shutout in New York knocked out the favored Rangers to win the East.
Offense is a constant in each series. You will see lots of free-flowing action. Defense wins championships it is said, and if that is true Golden State and Chicago have the advantage. They seem to in offensive settings as well. Expect Golden State to dazzle from behind the arc in a barrage that will best Cleveland in seven games, and Chicago to combine trademark grit with their skill to defeat the young Lightning in six.