Conference finals steal Cup's thunder

The way the Calgary Flames play, if they continue to take advantage of the dreaded home-ice disadvantage and reach the Stanley Cup finals, it seems a safe wager that they at least will bring their tear-open-the-envelope passion to the ultimate series.

And that the finals indeed could be a tension-filled show, if Jarome Iginla and the Muckers advance?


Let's at least hope so.

When Lord Stanley, the departing governor general of the Dominion, left behind his lovely parting gift -- which one has to admit, is far superior to a home version of "Jeopardy" offered up by Leafs fan Alex Trebek -- he probably envisioned a civil quest for its possession.

And the finals often are, at least compared to the highly emotional conference finals.

It isn't that the Stanley Cup finals are without passion, because the trophy remains the Holy Grail, and the hoisting always has been the most intoxicating rewards in sports.

That's even before the champagne corks pop in the dressing room and the guys with their names on the last slot throw parties on their days with the Cup over the summer.

If we didn't know better, many years we'd think everyone lost an edge after the conference finals.

Over the past decade, it is reflected in both the handful of routs in the finals and the relatively -- and, again, the qualifier "relative" is important -- ever-so-slightly diminished passion.

As the Cup enters the building, the level of competition -- in terms of emotion and even entertainment -- doesn't seem to step up.

For one thing, temporary "studio" sets are built in the corners, the show goes into prime time and the over-the-air networks in the states, and the fans -- at least in the non-traditional markets -- often act as if it's more of a party than a quest. In some markets, the CEO and the 11 vice presidents suddenly fight over the tickets, taking them away from the assistant controller who actually can name more than eight players on the roster.

That attitude can trickle down.

That comes with the accompanying acknowledgment that two of the last three Cup finals have gone seven games, and that four of the last five have gone at least six games. The only real stinker, at least in terms of prolonged series and a semblance of parity, came when the Detroit Red Wings came back from the Game 1 overtime loss and won the next four straight victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in 2002.

But it's a feeling, too, and it is a testament to the emotional nature of the sport that the real memorable series continue to be the ones that play off built-up rivalries and the possibility of lingering enmity. Though the New Jersey Devils and Anaheim Mighty Ducks went seven last year, and it wasn't a tea party with Paul Kariya getting up after that hit from Scott Stevens and scoring a crucial goal, it didn't have that additional edge so often present in the conference finals -- and even earlier.

The intraconference entertainment doesn't have to involve "message-sending" silliness in the late stages of routs in the earlier rounds, either, with Chris Simon sounding the bell himself and at one point taking on Mike Rathje, for example.

Or Marc Crawford standing on the bench, looking as if he is in danger of popping blood vessels in his neck as he screams at Scotty Bowman -- who looks bewildered and eventually says Crawford's dad would be ashamed of him. Even when the gloves never drop, and the coaches never implode, the conference finals seem to be better shows.

For some reason, "getting there" often turns out to involve as much emotion and, subconsciously and inexplicably, even fulfillment, as winning the whole thing.

Often, the surprise team -- e.g., Hurricanes, Sabres, Capitals, Panthers -- reaching the finals is overmatched, and/or the balance of power is leaning strongly toward one conference or the other.

And the NHL schedule has something to do with it, too. Even in this era of relatively frenzied player movement and transitory loyalties, franchise rivalries still mean something. Any of the potential finals matchups on the horizon involve relative unfamiliarity. If grudges are built over a series, the guys will be mumbling under their breath or screaming on the air that they'll remember this, um, in that one or two games against one another next season. (Whenever that is.) Jonathan Cheechoo and Ville Nieminen not only get under your skin, they remain there -- and that aggravation isn't forgotten by the time the teams meet again. Maybe twice over the next 15 months or so. If that.

This isn't going to happen, but it's all one more argument for cross-seeding the playoffs once the NHL gets down to its Final Four. If we get a Flyers-Devils, Maple Leafs-Senators, Avalanche-Red Wings or, heck, even Flames-Canucks Stanley Cup final, that would be great.

Better than the anticlimaxes we often get now.

Terry Frei, of The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming" and of the upcoming "Third Down and a War to Go."