Playoff pressure and curse factor loom over final four

Updated: May 10, 2007, 3:23 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Curses, foiled again.

(Bonus points for knowing the genesis of that quote. Hint: It wasn't Brett Hull ... or even Bobby Hull.)

Each of the NHL's final four teams is battling a burden, fighting a perception, attempting to overcome bad karma that to some extent can add to the otherwise significant pressure.

Scott Norwood
AP Photo/Phil SandlinA Sabres' Cup win may help the city of Buffalo forget about Scott Norwood's failed attempt.

It's one more reason that when the Sabres, Senators, Ducks or Red Wings gather on the ice with the Stanley Cup and pose for the celebratory picture, they will have passed the most testing playoff process in sports.

Players sometimes care less about the precedents of history than we give them credit for. My favorites are when we cite the allegedly daunting precedent that a college team, in any sport, has lost three straight to an opponent -- but neglect to mention that the last meeting was during the Korean War.

In this case, it ties into the fans, too, and an overall dynamic.

In Buffalo, it involves close calls and no cigars.

It's about Bills kicker Scott Norwood and wide right at end of Super Bowl XXV against the Giants in Tampa, Fla., which is unfortunate for a lot of reasons, including the fact the Bills had staged a heart-thumping, clutch drive to get in position for the attempted field goal in the first place.

It's about Thurman Thomas not being able to find his helmet in the early moments of Super Bowl XXVI against Washington in Minnesota, and the subsequent blowout loss to the Redskins that left the Bills with the second of four consecutive losses in the game of Roman numerals.

It's about, yes, Brett Hull's skate in 1999 -- it was not wide right of the crease at the end of the Stars' Cup-clinching victory -- plus the "French Connection" line of Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin and Rene Robert, and their teammates, coming up short against the Flyers in 1975. Their numbers are retired and hanging in the HSBC Arena rafters, looking down as the Sabres' attempt to finally get to the summit this season. The Sabres' seven-game loss to the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals last season can either be another inauspicious precedent or a piece of energizing motivation. The Sabres also came up one series short of making the finals in 1998 and 1980.

Fact is, passionate sports fans everywhere outside of the other three conference finals markets have plenty of reasons to identify with Buffalo fans and perhaps pull for the Sabres to finally bring the city a pro-sports championship. (With all due respect to Jack Kemp, who always rolled out to the offense's right wing, the back-to-back AFL titles in the pre-Super Bowl era don't count.)

The longer you look at this team -- and, yes, its market -- the more there is for outsiders to like.

Uh, well, cough ... even the uniforms, which were recently cited as the worst in the league in one unscientific rant by a fellow whose taste has to be considered suspect because he once drove a Pacer, the car that looked like an inverted fishbowl on wheels.

The Sabres have made it through bankruptcy, fan disillusion, deterioration of attendance and, ultimately, an ownership change and rejuvenation, both on and off the ice. In a sense, if this franchise had gone under, or gone somewhere else, it (even far more so than Pittsburgh and, yes, Ottawa, Quebec or Winnipeg) would have epitomized the problems that plagued the NHL.

And what of the other teams in the final four?

The Senators, of course, have been through some of the same travails as the Sabres, meaning they should be playing for a Bankruptcy Bowl rather than the Prince of Wales Trophy in the conference finals.

The Senators burden is their continuing reputation as the team that can't close the deal -- with or without calling the sales manager in to negotiate the final terms. The "sometimes you just lose" standard doesn't apply and isn't accepted, especially in a milieu of needing to find someone to blame, preferably someone whose name is short enough -- or can be shortened with a nickname -- to fit in a screaming tabloid headline.

But this might be their year. We really mean it this time.

In the other conference, the burdens and curses aren't as obvious or daunting, but with the Detroit economy and the auto industry struggling, the tag team of the Pistons and Red Wings could do a lot to provide encouragement. And because of the disparate nature of the fan bases, it wouldn't necessarily be redundant. Plus, while there's no question that the Red Wings did a masterful job of transitioning from the free-spending NHL to the salary-cap era, they could further validate that with a second championship in five seasons. The Tigers came close. The Lions ... still are in the league.

Out in Anaheim, the side issue is whether the Ducks, who came within one victory of the Cup four years ago, can finally bring the Stanley Cup to Southern California after 40 years and even two franchises in the most recent years. Maybe in this case, it's the Jack Kent Cooke curse, since the Kings owner once offered the infamous assessment that all those Canadians in the Southlands had moved there because they hate hockey.

Yes, if the Ducks make the finals, we'll again hear all the talk about hockey normally being an obscure afterthought in Southern California -- talk that will ignore the swings of attendance in the more "traditional" markets, including Ottawa and Buffalo, plus even Detroit if you go back far enough. (And not as far back as you'd think by listening to some of the folks who want you to believe there has never been an unsold ticket for a game at Joe Louis Arena.)

With so much going on in the Southlands, even without the NFL, yes, the sport can seem to be lost sometimes. And one major newspaper this season decided to treat the NHL as if it was drawing as well as, oh, USC basketball. But those advancing that theory during the finals should be made to visit many of the rinks in the area, and maybe even watch an adult game at midnight, or try to spot which of the kids are going to be NCAA stars soon and move on to the NHL within a decade.

Somebody's curse will be foiled.

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

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."