Car, clubs and the Cup

It's been a looooong year.

How long? Last Sunday, as we prepared for one of our intermission reports on ESPN2, His Mulletness, Barry Melrose, turned to me and said, "The Norris Trophy is for best defenseman, right?"

This might sound ludicrous to you, but I can tell you that when you've been yakking since Columbus Day on the virtues of Marek Zidlicky, shootouts, and the CBA, the brain starts to play tricks on you. The most elementary questions become Vietnamese trigonometry -- like what the Norris Trophy is for. We need the playoffs. It's time for a rebirth.

Next week, we'll hand out all the hardware for the postseason awards. Usually, I like to do it this week because I like to try to persuade those who have an actual vote in these matters, but most of the awards are truly up for grabs and could be won or lost in this final week. And that's the way it should be. You can't really declare a winner until all the votes are in, and like the seedings in both conferences, the individual awards will come down to the last game. That's the kind of year it has been.

Also next week, we'll have the predictions for the first-round matchups.

Last year, I became an instant celebrity in 37 countries by picking the Mighty Ducks to beat the Red Wings. I've been riding that one hit wonder like Murray Head ever since. I based that prediction on watching the Wings closely during the final weekend of the season. They looked sloppy and flawed as they blew leads in Columbus and Chicago, the goaltending looked shoddy, and they were going up against an Anaheim team with good goaltending, rugged defensemen, good skaters, veterans and faceoff supremacy. This season, as the year winds down, the Wings look sharp, focused and hungry. I don't see the Wings going out in the first round against Nashville, St. Louis or Edmonton.

But that is next week. How do we bridge the gap until the fun really begins? When in doubt, do what one did as a kid. Pretend. Here are my top five Stanley Cup finals matchups. These aren't predictions, just a variety of reasons why I would want to see these matchups take place and why they might be interesting:

1. Detroit vs. Toronto
This one is attractive on many levels. They are probably the two most popular and most hated teams in the U.S. and Canada. The two are always on television, which causes you to either love them or hate them. That's good for ratings and interest. Uniform-wise this matchup is tough to beat -- two classic logos with primary colors. Very natural, nothing contrived. This also would appease both television networks that cover the final. Both CBC and ESPN would have their highest-rated teams playing for the championship. This matchup also would give us the most Hall of Famers -- well over 10 combined. Personally, I would love this matchup, because it means I could drive the finals and not fly. As you might remember, two years ago I drove from Connecticut to Detroit to Raleigh to Detroit to Connecticut for the final. Detroit vs. Toronto would be a dream come true driving-wise. The easiest commute of all the possible matchups.

2. Detroit vs. Philadelphia
This one also could be driven. I'm sure it's fewer miles than Detroit to Raleigh. And if the series were to end in Philadelphia, I'm only three and a half hours to home by car. I also also think that this matchup would bring the highest U.S. rating of the teams who will qualify for the postseason. Two big-market teams with passionate fans. This matchup also brings in another key element when us ESPN folk anticipate a Stanley Cup final -- no going back and forth through customs and the baseball park factor. The baseball park factor is very important. The Stanley Cup final is a great chance to travel the country and to discover new ballparks. The Phillies are opening a new ballpark this year, and this would be a great chance to see a game there on one of the off days. An added bonus here is that former Flyer Keith Jones is the most powerful man in Philly, and I could go see a game with him, which means free tickets and lots of laughs.

3. Colorado vs. Boston
This one is another gem. First of all, this is an off the charts baseball park factor. The place where the Rockies play (remember, we shy away from corporate-named venues because they have taken the soul out of sports and we don't want to give free advertising) and Fenway Park are my two favorite baseball parks. When I go to a game in Denver, I like drifting around to different seats to get all the amazing vantage points that park has to offer. I still think Fenway is the most intimate and green, although the Red Sox have sold every seat through the year 2007. Getting a ticket might be tough. Boston also would be good because I could sleep at my parents' house 50 minutes away and score some of mom's world-famous breakfast sandwiches. This matchup is also great for those fans who had those combination Boston Bruin/Colorado Avalanche sweaters during Ray Bourque's tenure in Colorado. It would also cause an interesting question: Deep down, who would Ray Bourque really be rooting for?

4. San Jose vs. Tampa Bay
This probably would be a rating nightmare for both Canada and the U.S. But it brings into play another aspect of traveling the Stanley Cup final -- the golf factor. Others, like Darren Pang, have more time to golf than I do. They can play on every off day and early in the morning on game days. I work every day during the final, but sometimes get lucky on a day or two and can sneak out. Two years ago, I played a round of golf with Al Michaels. Oh, the Boomer Esiason stories! Last year, I played one round in Anaheim. A San Jose vs. Tampa Bay matchup would afford the possibility -- however slim -- of playing Pebble Beach. Tampa Bay and the surrounding area also afford many golfing opportunities. This matchup would also provide the biggest ballpark disparity -- the San Francisco Giants ballpark and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays park. I haven't been to either, but on the surface, they could be the best and the worst. This matchup is also prime for frequent flier mile users.

5. Vancouver vs. Ottawa
There would no ballpark factor here unless we trek to Seattle. I certainly can't drive this one. I imagine there are real nice golf courses in both areas, especially in Vancouver. I've never been to either city, so the new city factor is high. We'd only have to go through customs once. And this matchup would definitely make U.S. television people's heads explode, which could be entertaining. But the best reason is that when ESPN The Magazine called us for our preseason, impossible to predict because of injuries, trades, record-breaking suspensions and other factors, Stanley Cup prediction, I chose Vancouver-Ottawa. And if that came true, I would have my second hit after Anaheim over Detroit. And it would be goodbye Murray Head and hello Corey Hart.

On your recommendation, I bought tix to see Ben Folds playing at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts on the campus of Michigan State University. April 6 is two days before the playoffs begin (I'd assume), so no sacrifice there. I know nothing about Ben Folds, only that you said to go see him.

Gabe Labovitz

It will make your Top 5 concerts of all time. When he sings, "Should I take a class to lose my Southern accent?" Scream, "NO!!"

I just finished watching "Whalermania", the highlight video for the '86-87 Hartford Whalers. I still carry my Hartford Whaler Booster Club membership card with me every day.

Hail Doug Jarvis!
Kevin Cox
Westerville, Ohio

"Whalermania" sums up Barry Melrose's dating habits in 20th-century Saskatchewan

I just wanted to you to know, that on top of being a great writer and one hell of a story teller, Jack Falla was by far the best professor I had at Boston University. His stories were great (who wouldn't want to go to class and hear about skating with Gretzky) and I can honestly say I actually looked forward going to his classes & early in the morning & in the middle of winter & two miles from my apartment. I have given out my copy of "Home Ice" to everyone I know out here who has a love of hockey like mine, and it's gotten rave reviews. Thanks a lot, John.

Ken Rules!
Nader Ali-Hassan
Cleveland, Ohio

Hello Mr. Buccigross,
I know that it is a busy time of year but I was wondering if you can send a congratulations out to Toll Gate High School in Warwick, R.I. Toll Gate defeated powerful Mount St. Charles to win the Rhode Island Championship Division. What makes the victory even more special is the fact that it also ended Mount St. Charles' 26-year-old chokehold on the championship division. Mount St Charles (private School) has produced such NHL stars as Bryan Berard, Brian Boucher, Garth Snow, Mathieu Schneider and Jeff Jillson, while Toll Gate High School (public school) has only Sara Decosta, the gold-medal goaltender for Team USA. I would greatly appreciate the mention.

Richard Paul Ruggieri, Jr.
Coventry, Rhode Island

Little Rhody. The biggest little state in the union. High school, college and AHL hockey. Great hockey state. Before I came to work at ESPN in 1996, I worked for two years in Providence and did a story on Sara while she played with the boys at Toll Gate. She recently retired from playing because of a hip injury and to start raising a family.

I am a high school student and I have to say geometry is the worst subject I have ever had and I ever will have. I literally get bored to tears in there. Do you have any suggestions on how I can keep myself entertained for an hour?

Take care,

Get a bowl of Captain Crunch Crunch Berries. Eat all the Captain Crunch first. Then you'll have a bowl of berries. Eat those. Drink the pink tinted milk. And remember, natural neighbor interpolation, sometimes called the "area stealing" approach, is a useful way of interpolating scattered data that is not as widely available as it might be.

John, Ken:
My friend Mandy has become discouraged and will not attend another hockey game, possibly ever. While participating in a between-periods spectacular, she was attempting to throw a puck into the sunroof of a car, which was being driven around the ice. Unfortunately, she wristed the puck into the side window and it ricocheted off the glass and struck the emcee in the face. My friend ran, never to return to an arena.

Scott Michalchuk
(No. 19, Center and Captain, Mighty Drunks Hockey Assoc.)

Buy her a drink.

I haven't read any mullet-talk lately, so I thought I would rejuvenate the topic with a story. Last summer, I went to a Kenny Wayne Sheppard/Ted Nugent/ZZ Top concert. In between Nugent and ZZ Top, I was waiting for some friends to get out of the bathroom and decided to play a game: I began counting mullets. After about three minutes, I decided to quit and get a beer. The reason? I got scared. In that amount of time, I counted 16. The 16th mullet was on a woman.

Kevin Wright
St. Louis

That was no woman, that was my wife.

I worked briefly with a guy who said he went to high school with you. Maybe he was just name dropping, but his name is Ken Shively.

Eric Lorentzson

Ken Shively owes me 10 bucks. He borrowed it at the Ft. Steuben Mall to buy some CCHS cheerleaders a round of Orange Julius.

Hi John,
I just read in the L.A. Times that NHL2NIGHT will be canceled next year. Wow, that really sucks. I just wanted you to know all your enthusiasm and entertainment was appreciated by hockey fans.

Ty Visconti

I've received hundreds of e-mails. I appreciate the kind words, warmth, and electronic friendship.

John Buccigross is the host of NHL 2Night, which airs on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.