PHILADELPHIA — The Original Six is pushing hard to make it the Big Three.
Three seasons, three Stanley Cups.
The original six NHL teams that set the foundation for the league, before the 1967 expansion, are again in the mix to win the Stanley Cup. The Bruins won the Cup last season and Chicago in 2010. Throw in Detroit in 2008 and that makes three of the last four champions culled from an era of old school hockey.
This season, three of the founding fathers are in prime position to hoist the Cup. The New York Rangers have dominated the Eastern Conference and have no true threat for first place over the final month of the season. The Bruins are in contention to repeat as champions and Detroit could make it two titles in five seasons.
Chicago is in the mix, though the championship hopes of the Blackhawks rest so much on injured center Jonathan Toews making a strong recovery from concussion-like symptoms. Only Montreal and Toronto, a franchise that fired coach Ron Wilson last week, are out of contention for the Cup.
Having the original teams among the NHL elite is good news for the sport — especially in terms of merchandising, media attention and television ratings. After all, the six franchises have strong support bases outside their cities and across North America. Think of the New York Yankees, Boston Celtics, or the Pittsburgh Steelers. Babe, and Bird, and Bradshaw.
The teams also play under the burden and expectation of being affiliated with such tradition and prestige. Toews and Patrick Kane, for instance, couldn’t lead the Blackhawks on their championship run in 2010, which ended the longest active drought in the NHL, without hearing of the days of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita in 1961. The Rangers silenced those mocking “1940” chants when captain Mark Messier brought the Cup home in 1994. And the Bruins play at an arena in Boston that features a statue of Bobby Orr in full flight after his Cup-winning, overtime goal in 1970 on the sidewalk outside.
Not that there’s any pressure or anything.
Let’s face it. When Tampa Bay and Carolina win championships, the feat fails to pack much of a jolt outside their respective cities.
With the Original Six? Different story.
Eddie Olczyk calls games for NBC, NBC Sports and the Blackhawks. He understands the allure and expectations that come with playing for the original teams. He played for Chicago, Toronto, and won the Cup in 1994 with the Rangers over a 16-year career where he scored 794 points.
“When you are representing an Original Six franchise, there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that,” Olczyk said. “It’s not easy to play in a major market. It’s not easy to have that pressure each day, there is something to that. Some of it is a lot heavier than others, when you’re talking about Montreal and Toronto. Winning a Cup is extremely difficult. Winning it and being a member of the Original Six, I don’t want to say it’s a little extra special.
“But it’s pretty darn close.”
The Maple Leafs would have to get real hot, real fast to even consider making the playoffs. Montreal, once one of the great dynasties of the NHL, is buried in last place in the East. But the other four teams are firmly entrenched in contention.
The Rangers have ridden the goaltending of All-Star Henrik Lundqvist to a comfortable position as the No. 1 seed in the East. It’s uncommon ground for a team that has only won two postseason series since 1998. But they have enough on the roster right now to think they have a great shot at the Cup. In fact, general manager Glen Sather — one of the more active executives in the NHL — did not make any major moves at the trading deadline to tweak the roster.
Though they likely won’t catch the Rangers, the Bruins — in first place in the Northeast Division — have depth and drive, and can always draw on their experience from last year when they need to. Last postseason, the Bruins, who appear on track for the No. 2 seed in the East, won three seven-game series — against Montreal, Tampa Bay and Vancouver — en route to the title.
Detroit — a proven, title-ready, postseason staple which has won four Stanley Cups since 1996 — is short-handed as it continues to chase the top spot in the Western Conference. Leading scorer Pavel Datsyuk (59 points), captain Nicklas Lidstrom, forward Todd Bertuzzi and goalie Jimmy Howard all sat out with injuries during a 3-2 loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday.
“I know we’re missing some players right now, but we have to find a way to more organized,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “The bottom line is that we have talent in this room, and we have to be better.”
The Red Wings are in the tightest and toughest division race in the league. St. Louis has morphed from early-season loser to Western Conference leaders under new coach Ken Hitchcock. Detroit, Nashville and Chicago are all jostling for spots behind the Blues in the conference.
“We can’t do anything about St. Louis right now,” Babcock said. “Right now, it’s about us in this room. We like to win. That’s why we put that sweater on. It’s something we take pride in and passion in, and as long as we start to play better, we’ll be fine.”
All the warmth and nostalgia means nothing if one of the new kids on the block crashes the party.
Olczyk, who played for and coached the Penguins, says a healthy Sidney Crosby could make all the difference in the postseason. The Penguins joined the league in 1967, when the NHL grew from six to 12 teams. The Pittsburgh captain has been cleared for contact and, while he refuses to put a timetable on his return his return from concussion-like symptoms, there is growing optimism he could be back as early as next week.
The Penguins have won three Stanley Cups in their history, including one with Crosby.
“I think the news of Crosby coming back,” Olczyk said, “puts them right there.”
No doubt about that.
But don’t count out those old timers just yet.