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NHL playoffs unmatched but underappreciated

Eight years later, I still remember the blast from 60 feet away to end the game.

I was 11 years old at the time, and I almost left the Kiel Center in tears when Steve Yzerman’s shot late in the second overtime period ended the St. Louis Blues’ season. It would take seven years, when the Cardinals played their first game after pitcher Darryl Kile was found dead in a Chicago hotel room, before a sporting event drew similar emotion from me.

The game, Game 7 of the 1996 NHL Western Conference semifinals, will forever remain one of the greatest I have ever seen in any sport, with levels of drama and intensity unmatched by any other match-up I have witnessed. But that intensity is now typical of the NHL playoffs, as heated rivalries and the emergence of a plethora of great young goalies have turned the quest for the Stanley Cup into what is by far the most exciting postseason in American sports.

I turned on ESPN Classic recently and saw the game on, with the teams entering the second overtime period. Even though I knew the outcome, every shot and subsequent save took my breath away, making me cringe in anticipation of the winning shot. Two of my friends were less impressed.

“This is boring as hell,” one of them rambled. I have long grown accustomed to such drivel. “Turn on the basketball game.”

It’s a shame hockey will never catch on in this country without a drastic change in the American mindset. NHL broadcasts continue to produce the lowest television ratings out of America’s four major team sports, even though it is rabidly popular in other parts of the world, especially Canada.

I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Soccer is not nearly as popular here as it is in the rest of the world, primarily because Americans are conditioned to expect a scoring frenzy every five minutes. Any sport that can have a team can go 90 minutes without scoring and still be playing a great game is seen as boring, amateur or, worst of all, easy.

“I could skate around like an idiot for two hours too if I didn’t have to score,” my other, even more narrow-minded friend said.

Futilely, I tried to explain to him the merits of this beautiful game. I don’t think he was even listening as I told him hockey is the only major sport in America that requires substitutions to be made without a stop in play. He pretends to yawn when I explain the intricacies of passing a flat piece of rubber, which is moving around 70 mph, while skating at 30 mph, only to be denied by a goalie in a save that makes you wonder if he’s man or centipede.

With the Lightning playing the best hockey in franchise history, taking the top seed in the Eastern Conference this year, I would expect this city to be at least a little excited about the prospect of them competing for a title. The playoffs, as is always the case in any state south of Minnesota, are being met with a resounding “eh.” One would expect it to be difficult to get playoff tickets for the best team in their conference, but plenty of seats are still available for the Lightning-Islanders first-round series.

Making one last-ditch effort at making me realize I’m stupid for watching the sport, friend number one quips: “It’s just ice skating with a stick in your hands. All it’s missing is the judges instead of referees.”

It’s also missing an intelligent fan base — one that can appreciate great competition when it sees it.