Commentary

Has NHL gotten most out of Penguins-Wings matchup?

Updated: June 2, 2008, 2:15 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Has the "dream" come true?

Not really. Not yet.

And that has nothing to do with the outcome of the Stanley Cup finals, which could end as soon as Monday night in Joe Louis Arena.

It has to do with the NHL not getting the most mileage possible out of the Penguins-Red Wings "dream" matchup -- the one almost everyone without a direct rooting interest in another team in the hunt was hoping for.

[+] EnlargeSidney Crosby
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicSeeing Sidney Crosby on hockey's biggest stage may be able to help the NHL's profile over the long haul.

A few weeks ago, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made the conference finals circuit, attending a game in Philadelphia one night and Dallas the next. In both cities, the talk that the league was giddy about a looming "dream" Penguins-Red Wings matchup, understandably, was not going over well.

Bettman, speaking in Dallas, was aware of the backlash.

"A number of fans, some from afar, were suggesting that we have a rooting interest," he said of his experience the night before in Philadelphia. "Those of you who know me, know we don't. We just want to see entertaining, exciting games, and we want the officials to do a good job.

"And the stories that will unfold will unfold, depending on what happens on the ice. You know, it's not about big markets or small markets. It's not about dominant teams or not. It's about the actual competition and how good the games are, how good the series turn out. That's what I think is the most important for fans."

But that's the way it worked out: The league's best team, with more Swedes than ABBA and more international cooperation than the United Nations, masterfully assembled and maintained in the early seasons of the salary-cap era ... against its dynasty in waiting (cap permitting) with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co.

With the exception of the stirring Game 3 -- the Penguins' 3-2 victory -- it hasn't lived up to the billing. It has been fun and intriguing to watch the frequent head-to-head matchups of the Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk lines. Strength against strength. Stars vs. stars. And because of Datsyuk's and Henrik Zetterberg's two-way efficiency, the lines aren't mirror images, and what we've seen is the Detroit line's ability to frustrate the Penguins.

Yes, there was some method to the madness -- witness the penalty calls against the Red Wings in Game 4 on Saturday night. But there's just something a bit unseemly about the way the Penguins resorted to attempting to convince the men in striped shirts that the highly skilled and efficient Red Wings are the stylistic and strategic equivalents of the 1995 Devils.

There were some fireworks in the Dallas-Detroit series -- mainly Mike Ribeiro's swinging response to Chris Osgood. But, for the most part, the Predators, Avalanche and Stars grudgingly acknowledged they simply were beaten by a great team that played keep-away with the puck until putting together tic-tac-toe plays, and the vanquished Western Conference teams didn't whine (much) about it.

The Penguins should have been above that, too.

In prime time, this could have been an effective infomercial for the NHL and the sport in the United States on NBC, from Game 3 and beyond.

It still can be -- if the Penguins stop looking for conspiracy theories, cease being so paranoid about the officiating and can overcome what in some cases seems to be a curious lack of focus, as in Malkin's case (in the series with the Cup on the line). Maybe, even if it ends Monday night, if the Penguins stop looking like a team that can't yet handle the ultimate pressures, this still can go down as a great series. If they extend it, it truly can be...

A dream series.

The NHL sometimes is put on the defensive about this issue more than it deserves to be, because all sports -- and indeed all aspects of entertainment and pop culture -- have become "niche" to one extent or another.

As long as it is granted that the NHL has one of the most fervent and knowledgeable fan bases in the sporting marketplace, the rest is simply quibbling over number crunching.

All that said, if this series turns out to be a network hit -- and I'm not talking about Nielsen ratings, but a step forward for both NBC and the league in their revenue-sharing partnership -- everybody wins.

Casual sports fans can easily stumble across the NBC games as they peruse their favorite channels each time they turn the TV on.

And all games of the finals are watched from beginning to end by many fans of other NHL teams, those who often are accused of ceasing to care about the NHL when their favorite teams are eliminated. There's some truth to that in the United States, but it is mostly mindlessly parroted exaggeration, swallowed hook, line and sinker by major-market newspaper sports editors who see nothing jarringly nonsensical about sending writers to the NBA Finals but not the Stanley Cup finals. Newspapers are but one element in the big picture, but that is typical of a mainstream media attitude that the NHL is still fighting.

Much of the rest of the world is tuned in, as well, both because of the international talent pool on display and the natural interest in the sport itself around the globe. That's where the NBA and NHL are in it together, and not only because Europeans often seem to have been better schooled in the fundamentals of the game(s) before coming over. (Forced to make a choice, I'd take the Coyotes' Martin Hanzal over the Suns' Shaquille O'Neal in a free-throw shooting contest.)

Even as the conference finals progressed, the "dream" matchup backlash never reached the point where it seemed as suspect as, oh, I don't know, just to pick an example out of the hat, a league "hoping" (wink, wink) for a Celtics-Lakers championship series.

The NHL obviously didn't mind the way it turned out.

So now we're down to the Penguins hoping for a miracle turnaround, starting with sending Red Wings fans into the night disappointed after Game 5 -- all dressed up and geared up for a celebration that at the very least has to be postponed.

Some dreams are forgotten instantly.

Others you never forget.

Which is this going to turn out to be?

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

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."