Weekend Hockey Finals To Be A Battle Of Champions

If you're looking for a feel-good story of an upstart underdog, don't watch the NHL conference finals this weekend. But if you want to see a match up between the past four Stanley Cup champions, you won't want to miss this weekend's dropping of the puck. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins Robert Siegel for a preview.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The weather is heating up across much of the country, and that must mean it's time get really serious when it comes to ice hockey. Just four teams remain in pursuit of the Stanley Cup. They are the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Boston Bruins, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angles Kings. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now to talk about the National Hockey League semifinals. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: The games start tomorrow, best of seven series. Pittsburgh faces Boston in the east and Chicago plays L.A. in the west. Where's the surprise here?

FATSIS: Nowhere. These four teams also happen to be the last four Stanley Cup champions. The Penguins won in 2009, the Blackhawks in 2010, the Bruins in 2011 and the Kings last year. Three different teams lifted the cup before that, so that means we'll have a repeat champion for the first time since the NHL instituted a salary cap after a lockout that resulted in the cancellation of the entire 2004-5 season.

SIEGEL: This season also was shortened by a labor dispute between players and owners. How has that affected play?

FATSIS: You know, not a lot. The teams played 48 games instead of the usual 82. But the final four are all worthy, no surprises. Chicago, you'll recall, began the season by going a record 24 games without losing in regulation. They finished with 36 wins. Pittsburgh also won 36 games. The Penguins are averaging more than four goals a game in playoffs, a full goal more than any other team. That's partly because they've got the great Sydney Crosby. He missed all of April, a dozen games, a quarter of the season, with a broken jaw, still finished third in the NHL in scoring.

SIEGEL: So Chicago and Pittsburgh have got to be favored in the semifinals.

FATSIS: Yeah, favored, they are, but Boston and Los Angeles are physical, defensive-minded teams, and that's helped them in the playoffs so far. Boston will need to slow the game down to dampen Pittsburgh's scoring threats. Los Angeles' key player is their goaltender, Jonathan Quick. He was the playoff MVP last year when the Kings won the cup. He's been as good or better this playoff season.

SIEGEL: Now, one of the losing coaches in the last round of the playoffs was fired this week - John Tortorella of the New York Rangers.

FATSIS: Yeah, Tortorella is a coaching archetype - a profane, humorless, harsh. He cursed at refs. He got into a shouting match with a fan during the playoffs, and he never suffered the media, repeatedly refused to answer questions. He called reporters names. He cursed at them. Here's one recent interaction between Tortorella and a reporter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHN TORTORELLA: Redden sticks up for his teammates the other night...

LARRY BROOKS: Yeah.

TORTORELLA: ...and you come up with some sarcastic article?

BROOKS: It was funny.

TORTORELLA: It was funny?

BROOKS: Yeah.

TORTORELLA: You were probably beat up in the bus stop most of the time.

BROOKS: You think so, huh? (laughter)

TORTORELLA: Next.

FATSIS: Yeah, next. The media don't get coaches fired, though. Reports from the gleeful New York tabloids indicate that Tortorella's overbearing personality, his harsh treatment of players in public and private just ran its course, as it usually does with coaches like him.

SIEGEL: Finally, Stefan, I gather you've watched a new short documentary about a retired NHL goaltender, Clint Malarchuk, a man who suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in NHL history.

FATSIS: Yeah. The documentary is on ESPN's Grantland website, and it's terrific. Malarchuk was in the net for Buffalo in 1989. Two players collided into him. The skate of one of the players rose up and slashed Malarchuk across the neck, cutting his jugular vein and his carotid artery. He bled all over the ice. He thought he was dying. The film is about the accident, but it's also about Malarchuk's battles with obsessive compulsive disorder and depression. It is a worth a watch.

SIEGEL: OK. I'll check it out. Thank you, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis talks to us most Fridays about sports and the business of sports. You can hear him on Slate.com's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen."

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