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No joy in Mudville for the courageous Lightning; storylines as we head to the Stanley Cup finals

Credit to the hard-to-figure out Bruins.  Thomas was very good, but the guys in front of him didn't allow much to get through.

Both teams wanted it.  Both were so determined.  But I won't argue with the result.  I do feel the Bruins "deserved" it, if that's fair to say when two teams play the way they both did.

Boston has a huge challenge on their hands now.  But they have a few days to unwind and take on the best team in the NHL right now.

The truth is, by this time of year, I am probably less interested, rather than more, once we get to the Stanley Cup finals.  (As I’ve often stated, the first round for me is the best hockey of the year.  16 teams with a dream, playing their guts out- before injuries, wear and tear and lousy breaks take them out…)

Of course the Leafs haven’t been to the finals since, well we all know how long it’s been— much longer than many who visit this site have been around!  So maybe that's why I'm a tad lethargic, hockey-wise, at this time of year.

Franchises like (not too much offense intended) Anaheim, Carolina and Tampa Bay sometimes end up winning the Cup.  C'mon.  Deserving teams, sure, but those are not exactly fan bases who have been panting about a lack of hockey championships for generations.  Truly, how many "fans" in those markets actually cared- or really missed hockey- during the lock-out a few years back?

I well recall well-known hockey commentators in the U.S. saying at the time that the sport risked virtual oblivion in many U.S. markets if that labor dispute went any longer than the one wrecked season.  People just didn't much care that there was no hockey.  Plenty of other things to do, I'm sure, in those cities.  Hockey just isn't that important to the vast majority of the population in a lot of those places.

But I digress...

In this year's playoffs, there are a few things I can’t help but have noticed as the various series have moved along, and here are some highlights- in no particular order….(You can click on some of the bolded names below to read some earlier posts.)

Joe Thornton and the can't-get-over-the-hump Sharks

The fact that this guy played with a busted shoulder (as did teammate Ryan Clowe) should tell us all we need to know about the guy.

The Bruins dumped Thornton a few years back after he had a marginal playoff spring—also when he was playing with a serious injury.

I doubt the Sharks will do the same.

I wrote before the Vancouver-San Jose series that one of Luongo or Thornton had a chance to be the next John Elway—great players who finally, after many years, won the “big one” that they were heavily criticized for not having won before.

For me, Thornton and the Sharks answered the bell.  There can be only one team that wins it all every June.  Making the “final four” (and but for some unfair/missed calls the Sharks may still be playing) is pretty darn good, when you start with 30 of the best teams in the world.

Tomas Kaberle

Kabby has been perhaps the enigma of the playoffs.  Where, just about everyone is wondering, has that calmness and talent gone?

I heard an interview with an ex-Bruin player the other day.  the word that came up was confidence.  Tomas just hasn't had it in Boston.  He's had a couple of moments in the playoffs (and I liked the way he played much more in Games 6 and 7 against Tampa), but by and large he has not been a guy the Bruins want to rely on.  I don't think he was on the ice (maybe once) after the Bruins scored.

But hey, the Leafs get what they wanted (Boston's second round pick) and Kaberle has another shot at redemption- and now, a Cup.

Roberto Luongo

I’ll be honest.  I’m not a Luongo guy.  I’ve seen too many occasions in the past where he dropped the ball when he had the chance to lead his team.

And even this spring, but for some good fortune in this year’s playoffs, the Canucks may have been out by now.  He has not always delivered as a big-time goalie should.  I can’t quite forget what happened against Chicago a couple of weeks back.  But his teammates bailed him out, as good teammates should.

Before his many loyal supporters start to e-mail, I’ll acknowledge I’m probably biased.  Don’t know why.  He’s a really good goaltender and a competitor, I realize.

Maybe it’s a bit like how I felt about Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski last summer and at the beginning of the 2010-’11 season.  (I didn’t even think he’d be with the Leafs when they broke camp in October.)  But hey, I eventually saw things differently, slowly, over time, as I came to think of Grabovski in a different light.

Maybe if Luongo stands on his head and is the difference in the finals, I’ll admit I was wrong- flat out wrong.

Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa

I won’t say much because Vancouver fans who really know their team simply understand what these guys mean to the Canucks far more than I do.

I’ll just say this:  The Leafs wish they had some/more guys like those two.  Guts and more guts.  And they deliver, too.

Brian Rafalski

I read somewhere he played without an ACL in the playoffs.  I don’t know what that even means.  (But hey, just hearing that was enough to make me sit down….Can't imagine playing NHL hockey.)

This guy has been good for years, and was one of those guys that the Devils “found” and who came “late” to the NHL.

Just a fine all-around player—and all guts and class.

Nik Lidstrom

No one should be able to play as well as this guy when you’re over 40.  Don’t know if he’ll come back next season but he cemented his Hall-of-Fame credentials long ago, anyway.

Milan Lucic

Is it unfair that I expect more from this guy?  He’s young, he works hard.  He makes plays and scores goals.

Yet, if I was a Bruin fan, I would want even more.

Unfair, I guess.

Tim Thomas

I love Thomas’ story.  Love what he has done to help the Bruins get back to being a contending team over the past few seasons.

But can you go all the way with a guy who plays net as frenetically as he does?

Yes, there are times he looks composed and so on top of his angles and his game that he can’t be beat-like Friday night (though he was nowhere near as busy as Roloson).  But sometimes he’s just all over the place, it seems.

But I love the guy.

Dominic Moore

Ex-Leaf Moore could have made more money taking the deal he got from Burke two years ago, rather than bouncing around to Florida, Montreal and Tampa Bay. 

But in the last two springs, the Leafs have played exactly zero playoff matches.  Moore has been in 37.

I’m guessing he’s happy with his choices.

Tampa Bay

For whatever reason (just not a fan of the market, I guess.  It’s not fair, just kind of how I feel…) I have never given enough credit to the Lightning.

I admire what then GM Jay Feaster built years ago, and recognize Tortorella was a good—and successful—coach.  He helped push Lecavalier to become the all-around player he became.  (I’ll always remember Vinny taking a vicious shot in the mouth while making a play in the playoffs the year the Lightning won the Cup.  The “old” Vinny would likely never have done that, even in the playoffs.  But under Tortorella, he played harder.)

He has slid back to being, at times, more of a perimeter guy, but he’s such a fine player.

And St. Louis.  Again, I can’t add much.  The guy is “small” yet plays with a zeal that you love to see.  And he’s just so good.

They are a team that has everyone “buying in”.  The no-name guys matter, as they do on all good teams  You can just see it—and feel it.  While Steve Yzerman inherited a lot of pieces, I realize he added some nice ingredients.  And the new coach has a lot to do with their success, too.

Have to admire them. 

Steven Stamkos

How good is this guy?  And how good will be be, including at playoff time, as he gains more experience?

He's young, gifted and plays hard minutes.  He made some important plays on the back-check in Game 7.  I'm not sure there's much more you can ask of a player still in the very early stages of his budding career.

There are all kinds of other things and players we could talk about.  Recchi at 43 working his tail off.  Eric Brewer. Hedman.  Peverley.  I've written about Seidenberg  and Roloson earlier in the playoffs.

And oh yeah, the long-suffering Florida Panther, Nathan Horton, who just happened to score another game-winner.

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