|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2013||[Print without images]|
This is where the focus is the sharpest, the images the most defined.
If the start of every NHL season represents a grand vista full of promise and the unknown -- maybe slightly out of focus because of its vastness -- the Stanley Cup finals are the very opposite.
All eyes turned toward two teams at the end of an epic journey.
All eyes, in this case, are on the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks, each four victories from owning a piece of history.
In the days before Wednesday's Game 1, it is time to step back, to acknowledge the trek and what it means to be here at this point.
In the Blackhawks' dressing room, Jamal Mayers pulls off his sweaty gear after Monday's optional skate. He has played in 915 NHL regular-season games and 63 more in the postseason -- and has never been to the finals.
He has, however, been to the conference finals and lost to teams that went on to win Cups.
"Yeah, it sucks," Mayers said.
When his other seasons ended, he found other things to do but always gravitated back to the finals.
"Typically, if we got knocked out early, I wouldn't watch until the final. The last 17 years," Mayers told ESPN.com. "You're always jealous that you're not there and, as a player, it's why you play. It's always tough to watch, though."
Now, although he isn't in the lineup, he is part of a team that stands at the brink.
"Yeah, it's pretty cool," Mayers said. "You don't want to come this far and not finish it. We're going to have a tough road ahead of us, but both teams are playing their best right now, and that's exciting."
For those who have been here -- including the core of this Chicago team, which won a championship in 2010, along with many Bruins who won a Cup the following season -- the vantage point will always be different, the memories dissimilar to those of the ones walking this path for the first time.
Still, all the players on both teams have some sort of finals touchstone, whether it's their own experiences in winning (or losing) a championship or those they watched growing up or as younger pros.
Mayers, for instance, recalls being in St. Louis and losing to the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference finals in 2001, and then a couple of weeks later watching Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque raise the Cup for the first and only time in his career as the Avs defeated New Jersey in seven games.
"Even though we lost to them to go to the final, it was kind of cool to see him win after playing so long," Mayers said.
Those are memories and images that are timeless, and there are hundreds, perhaps thousands.
|Ray Bourque's classic triumph is a fond memory for many hockey players.|
• Bourque taking the Cup from Avs captain Joe Sakic.
• Patrick Roy winking at Tomas Sandstrom during the Habs' historic Cup run in 1993.
• Detroit captain Steve Yzerman setting the Stanley Cup on the edge of Vladimir Konstantinov's wheelchair in 1998.
• Patrick Kane's seeing-eye goal that ended the Blackhawks' long Cup drought in overtime of Game 6 in 2010.
• Marc-Andre Fleury throwing his body in front of a last-second Nicklas Lidstrom shot as the Penguins won the Cup in Detroit in Game 7 in 2009.
Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy recalled the Tampa Bay Lightning's emotional win over Calgary in seven games in 2004, as well as the Bourque moment.
"I think those two I remember," Leddy said. "And obviously the blood, sweat and tears of those series going to seven games. It was unbelievable."
What about Jaromir Jagr's virtuoso performance against Chicago in 1992?
Jagr, a five-time NHL scoring champ and surefire Hall of Famer, earned Stanley Cup rings with Pittsburgh in his first two seasons in the NHL. He has not returned to the finals since. Until now.
His Bruins toque pulled over his head after his team swept aside the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night, Jagr talked philosophically about his journey and the return to this stage.
He said he felt like a 70-year-old man -- "You know, trying to be alive and be thankful for every day he can live on this Earth." "That's me and hockey," said Jagr, who has evolved from goal-scoring machine to wise old veteran playing a small role in a big machine. "I appreciate every day I can play. That's the way it is."
In Chicago on Monday, countryman Michael Frolik talked about how he idolized Jagr growing up.
"Oh, of course, yeah," Frolik said. "We were from the same hometown, and when I was little, he was a big star at home. For sure, he was my idol."
Given that Jagr and fellow Czech (and playoff points leader) David Krejci are with the Bruins, one way or another, the Cup will be coming home this summer.
"Right now, we know the Cup is going to be in my hometown," Frolik said. "It's kind of a good thing.
"But yeah, I know Jagr and Krejci. I played with Krejci in junior one year on the same line, so I'm very familiar with him, and I know he's a very good skill player, and he proved it this year, too. So we have to be careful with him."
On Tuesday, the Bruins and the media will descend on Chicago, which owns home-ice advantage thanks to its stellar regular-season record.
For those who haven't been through it, young or old, there will be reminders from coaches and veterans to both embrace the moment and to make sure the focus remains where it needs to be.
"Well, they're certainly excited to be here," Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville said. "They should be, and I think we have some guys with some experience of going through it, probably at the same timeline in their careers, [who] can help share in their experiences and relive some of those moments."
You have to keep your priorities straight, the coach added, "but I think it's a fun process, and you want to make sure that you do enjoy it."
It might be easier said than done.
"We talked a little bit about it and just embracing it and being excited," Chicago rookie Brandon Saad said. "It's not every year. Some guys never make it to the Cup finals in their career. [I'm] just excited about it and looking forward to the challenge."
Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton plays a crucial role on the team's fourth line and was part of a Boston team that overcame a two-game deficit in the 2011 finals against Vancouver. He returns for a shot at a second with the Bruins (and third of his career), understanding that nothing is a given.
"I hope it's not taken for granted," he said Monday in Boston. "We're very fortunate to be there twice in three years. I can't speak for the young guys. I know myself, and I am getting up there and don't have a lot of years left in this league, so I treat every year like it could be the last.
"Even last year I thought we had the team to get there, but it didn't work out in the first round. We've kept the same core around for the last few years, and we've always believed in each other in this room."
For many, it will mean a chance to share the experience with family.
"My dad and I, growing up watching hockey -- and my brother, too … they're all excited, coming to the games," said Leddy, a native of Eden Prairie, Minn. "My brother, he didn't get to come out much because of school and stuff, so now that he's done with school, he'll be able to come out and watch. He's catching the first three, actually.
"I think it's definitely going to hit [how big this moment is]. Once we go out there for the pregame skate, let alone Game 1. I think everybody's really excited and ready to go."
The Los Angeles Kings ran roughshod over opponents en route to their first Stanley Cup last spring. But that is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to teams' journeys to the final two.
In the vast majority of cases, the teams that outlast their conference opponents must overcome some level of hardship, must recover from wobbles and misses.
The Bruins, of course, were down 4-1 in Game 7 of the first round and somehow managed to win that game in overtime on Patrice Bergeron's goal.
The Blackhawks got off to a sluggish start to the playoffs and, after beating Minnesota in five games, found themselves down 3-1 to the Detroit Red Wings before rebounding to win in overtime in Game 7 on Brent Seabrook's series clincher.
Although the Bruins and Blackhawks did not meet in the regular season because of the altered schedule caused by the lockout, that does not mean they have not traveled parallel tracks to get here.
"It's quite a journey," backup netminder Ray Emery told ESPN.com on Monday. "Especially that Detroit series, where you've got your back against the wall, and then going in to play a team like L.A. that's a Cup champion, and we know how hard they played."
If there is someone who understands the true nature of such a journey, it's Emery. He was the starting netminder in 2007 when his Ottawa Senators were beaten in five games by the Anaheim Ducks in the Cup finals.
Emery ended up playing in the Kontinental Hockey League then suffering a serious hip injury before ultimately landing with the Blackhawks at the start of the 2011-12 season.
"Like I say, it's been quite the journey, and it's exciting to meet the East," Emery said.
Will he savor this return to the finals?
"It's always a fun run, playoffs in general. But definitely [savoring it]," he said. "You definitely want to take advantage of it when you get the opportunity."
Those are words to live by as we narrow our focus to the two that remain and the opportunities for glory that await.