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The script was in their hands, but the Gods of hockey failed to turn the last pages.
This year's National Hockey League conference finals had all the drama of an Oscar night. In the Western conference, we had Ray Bourque of the Colorado Avalanche in a quest for the first Stanley Cup of his storied career. In the Eastern conference, we had Eric Lindros, once the Flyers' golden boy, attempting to overcome a year of health problems and criticism, to help his team advance to the championship.
Both tales seemed destined for a story-book ending, but hockey isn't Hollywood and the dreams of both fans and players, can be shattered with a concussive hit or the ringing of a post.
Bourque seemed destined to push the Avalanche into the finals. The classy defenceman came to the Rocky Mountains in search of the Stanley Cup ring that eluded him in Boston. After joining the Avalanche, Bourque fueled a team that was playing well below its potential.
The Avalanche played inspired hockey throughout the season's stretch and dominated in their play-off victories over Phoenix and mighty Detroit. They took the defending champs, the Dallas Stars, to a seventh game in the conference final but fate put them a goal short. Bourque's shot with 14 seconds left was deflected past Dallas goalie Ed Belfour, but went off the left post. Dallas won the game 3-2 and clinched the series. The hockey gods must have been sleeping.
Eric Lindros, once thought to be the "Next One," returned to his Flyers team in game six of the Eastern final, trying to help his organization earn their first championship in the Lindros era. You don't have to like Lindros. I don't like him. Those who have encountered him personally confirm he is an arrogant, insufferable ass. His own team mates even agreed with Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke when he was stripped of his captaincy.
Nevertheless, I felt for Lindros as I watched New Jersey's Scott Stevens deliver the hit (it was clean) that sent Lindros crashing to the ice in game seven of the Eastern final. The first period hit gave Lindros the sixth concussion of his career and his third since March. The Flyers went on to lose the game 3-1, and New Jersey was on their way to the final. The hockey gods had officially gone on strike.
In a perfect world Lindros would have shaken off Stevens' hit, led a Flyers' charge and scored the winning goal to send his team to the finals. Instead, his crumpled form on the ice may be the last image we see of a career that was supposed to be brilliant. For Bourque, the tears running down his face at the end of the Avalanche/Stars series showed a man who may have missed his last chance.
I will not take anything away from New Jersey or Dallas; they both deserve to be in the Stanley Cup finals. Yet, I can't help feeling it's a poor ending to what seemed to be a brilliant play-off script. The dream: Flyers and Avalanche in the final, series goes seven games. The outcome: Bourque or Lindros get a ring. But there are no gods of hockey and no Hollywood ending.
By the way, if there were hockey gods, Maurice Richard would have lived forever.