With game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals tonight at Capital One Arena, there are two words on my mind, linked together but entirely unlinked. They have nothing to do with each other and yet one causes another.
The first word is pressure.
Not in the way you think it’s applicable. This is coming from a Tampa Bay Lightning fan, with Tampa Bay Lightning readers (…sometimes; it’s not like this site gets a shitload of traffic). The team’s on the verge and… No, I’m not thinking of game day pressure. That goes for the Washington Capitals as well (hello, Caps faithful) who truly do have game-night pressure simply to have a tomorrow and bring forth a game 7 at Amalie Arena. That’s not the kind of pressure that’s on my mind either.
It’s pressure that lives no matter what the outcome of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals happens to be. Biased opinion can say the pressure lies more with both franchise and certain feats and factoids can be pulled out to make the case for the greater pressure that looms.
That brings me to the second word. It’s one that can be seen as unfair, biased in its own right and in truth, it is. Yet what brings the word to light and to have weight is something that can be termed as unfair as well. It’s a word that just doesn’t have any normal linkage to pressure and rare (never?) gets associated with the stress and tension that pressure tends to bring a psychosis. Well, unless you’re in the media industry, but that’s a different story for a different time and perhaps the cast of Solo have it looming over them (it premieres this week). But let’s just get to the point, shall we?
The second word is novelty.
Las Vegas, Nevada is a market that was overdue for professional sports. For the National Hockey League to get into the gambling Mecca before the NBA or perhaps the NFL is a sound accomplishment (Author’s Note: I’m not sharp on things at the moment, I didn’t realize the Oakland Raiders are relocating to Las Vegas; that adds a direct risk). Oh, it’s brought the traditional bullshit that comes with expansion in NHL — complaints that a non-traditional market got a team; oh, the NERVE… That type of reaction is the same disgusting element that this fan has been exposed to for decades. The Golden Knights are here though, and they are entirely golden in their first season of NHL play.
The Golden Knights, who benefitted by-and-large through an expansion draft process that only featured one team, was atop of the Pacific Division and Western Conference for most of the 2017-18 NHL season. In fact, while the Tampa Bay Lightning led the league for most of the season, it was Vegas (overseen by former Bolt Gerard Gallant) who tended to run 2nd in the overall NHL standings. Impressive for an expansion team, ain’t it?
That’s how novelty starts to build.
For the Golden Knights faithful who happen to cross this post: Please don’t take it as a shot at the market or the team. That’s not my intention whatsoever. In the process of becoming that lives with every single professional and amateur sports club, the process of becoming has been outright and that’s been a gift for Vegas.
Thus NOVELTY comes into play.
I worry about Vegas simply by way of going all-the-way in year one. This counters sports as we know it – fans get linked most devotedly to a team by going through all fashions of emotion before a team vies for a title, let alone wins one. For Las Vegas, Nevada to go that far with the lesser of sports in America in its first competitive season, doesn’t it sort of cheapen the experience long-term in market? The Stanley Cup is such a vaulted championship – it beats the ever loving hell out of the other pro sport titles, even if the Super Bowl outranks every other championship event. Will the market see the team and the league in the same light during more middling times when the team isn’t built up for immediate success? Or if the team repeats its vaulted stance over and over again, will fans still take to their franchise or look for the more common and traditional sports in North America (football, baseball and basketball) to join the market and to draw their investment of time and entertainment?
The pressure is novelty. Not for Vegas, though. That – for me to throw out worry about hockey turning into little more than a novelty in-market – is just a blogger doing his blogging thing; wah-whine-blah. For the team that wins the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s a much more real issue.
Is it Vegas directly? No, it’s fan perception around the rest of North America. Like any championship, fans will take sides (or stay uninvolved because their reaction to who is vying for the Stanley Cup is meh) but the novelty factor puts it into a different light than the norm. Some of those meh fans will actually take a casual interest in the Finals. Others will do their traditional thing and take sides, but with the novelty factor pushing them to the side they’ll be on. Some see Vegas’ fast climb as a negative and it must be stopped. Others cling to the novelty in the aw-shucks mentality. “This is cool! Let’s see them go all the way! Yay!”
Now try being Tampa Bay or Washington.
Of course any team playing in a championship game or series has pressure on them to actually achieve the feat by a larger contingent than their home crowd of fans. The first-year counterpart puts a different spin on the international attention that’s forthcoming. Oh, the Washington Capitals already have a load of pressure on them because they have not gone all the way despite the talent of Alex Ovechkin and his teammates. Getting to the Eastern Conference Finals, getting around Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, is a new achievement for the club. To go further and to the Stanley Cup Finals may nullify the novelty factor just slightly while expectations of Washington takes prime focus… Unless the Capitals struggle in the Finals.
Short histories between the Golden Knights and both the Capitals and Lightning put an oddity on the Finals. Neither Washington nor Tampa Bay has ever won a game against the Golden Knights…in 2 games played for each team. Those contests themselves are stories, but that’s getting away from the point: With either team that makes the Stanley Cup Final round against Vegas, they are trying to attain their first win in franchise history against Vegas, let alone the right to hoist the chalice of Lord Stanley.
The novelty factor of Vegas – new team, new market – against either club will draw eyeballs both for and against Vegas. It’ll draw eyeballs for and against the Capitals and Lightning too, with some of those bandwagon jumpers wanting Vegas put into a place of generalization with the rest of the league. The media itself may see the issue of trying to stop the upstart franchise and return some regularity to the NHL. Yet, for long-time traditionalists, this forthcoming Cup series is anything but regular: The Lightning are the only team left in contention to have ever won the Cup, and have played for it twice. They — the non-traditional, Florida based team — are the storied club of the moment and their own first-championship in 2004 can be seen as a novelty (I christened it the Pass the Friggin’ Torch Tour back in 2004, just for saying sake). Oh, Tampa Bay was well past novelty status in-market as the pratfalls and issues, along with the climb to contention brought in and endeared fans to the franchise. It’s larger perception – traditional vs. non-traditional — that may have made Tampa Bay’s ascent look like a novelty.
A lot of fans suffer but are married to the pro sports franchises they love. They stand there through good times and bad. They get to cherish the good times when they arrive, and cling to the hope that the club can go all the way to immortality upon the Stanley Cup. That’s part of why Vegas’ place in the Finals is something to be seen as a novelty that will draw people in – the team just rose without the drama of years and years of building up to contention-status. The last thing that’s needed here is a one-and-done contention run for the team or the market. It’s a process of becoming and yet… here they are.
Can they be stopped? Will that story get the time of day during the Stanley Cup Finals or will the media simply latch on to individuals and treat the series as a normal affair of two clubs not highly-regarded with regularity like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Boston Bruins? We’ll see…
The novelty is there with Vegas playing for the Cup. The pressure by way of it is up a notch (can it be stopped?) for either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Washington Capitals. Will the achieve it? Will they submit to it and let the Golden Knights reign? We’ll see.