With just under 15 minutes remaining in the second period of Game 5, Bryan Bickell entered the Bruins’ zone with the puck. Patrick Kane drifted from the right side toward the middle looking for the puck, and when Bickell’s shot was denied, Kane was there to make a bottle-popping backhand shot for the 2-0 lead. This would be his second game-winning goal of the postseason, and the final point he registers. However, that (along with his 19 points in 23 games) would be enough to earn him the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. The third straight American-born player to win this trophy, could it be that the Americans are finally taking over a sport hailed as Canadian battleground?
This process began a long time ago, when in 1988 Wayne Gretzky was traded for a king’s ransom to the Los Angeles Kings. At that time, the west coast warm weather states appeared to be a dead zone for hockey. With the greatest player of all time joining the Kings though, there was finally a spark to ignite a passion for one of the toughest sports in North America. The NHL would move into San Jose, Anaheim, and even Phoenix following this success that led to an influx of hockey players growing in Southwest region.
The next year, the greatest player in American history was drafted into the NHL: Mike Modano. He led the Dallas Stars to a Stanley Cup victory in 1999, turning them into prime entertainment in the land of football. Once again, a great player went to what seemed like a dead market and created interest in a spot that was considered only for cold-weather areas. Nearly 21 years later, the Americans finally started to find themselves with an edge above the competition.
In the 2011 postseason, the Boston Bruins went on a run that saw them winning three game sevens to finally earn the Stanley Cup. The team was led by offensive force David Krejci, but the most valuable player to this particular team happened to be an American player – Tim Thomas. Thomas, a 36 year old goaltender, faced the most shots in NHL playoff history in 849, and turned away the most as well, for a .940 save percentage that would have the Tampa Bay Lightning pining for more.
Thomas became well known for his incredible cat-like reactions, making seemingly impossible saves look natural to him. His pads would go into the air, glove flailing around, and somehow he would always find the puck and make the save. After finally turning away his final 37 shots in a 4-0 shutout victory in the seventh game against Vancouver, Thomas was rewarded the Conn Smythe and became the first American to win the trophy since Brian Leetch won it in 1994 for the New York Rangers.
The following postseason, another goaltender went on a wild run leading the eighth seeded Los Angeles Kings. Jonathan Quick, the likely starting goaltender in the Sochi Olympics for the US squad, became the doll of the nation with his rebound control and positioning. Exactly ten years younger than Thomas, Quick went on a 16-4 run during the playoffs to show one of the most dominant performances in recent history. His .946 save percentage coupled with a 1.41 goals against average were more than enough to garner him votes for playoff MVP.
Quick became hailed for his leadership and his determination to always make the save. Now he’s known as arguably the best goaltender in the league because of his low-playing style that covers the entire bottom of the net. Meanwhile, other goaltenders are unable to handle the pressures of the playoffs when Quick proves that he has the toughness to strive through any environment.
Finally, this postseason the trifecta completed with Patrick Kane’s game-winning goal in game five and the incredible impact he had on the game. While unable to rack up points like a typical superstar is thought to do, Kane was able to provide quickness and an aggressive shot. If not for Kane’s ability to draw in defenders, it’s possible the Blackhawks would never have found the openings to finally score and take home their second Stanley Cup in four years.
Moving forward, it appears the Americans are finally catching up, though a little slower. The Canadians have Sidney Crosby, but the Americans have Stanley Cup winners. Tomorrow in the NHL Entry Draft, the Americans gain yet another great player in the NHL in Seth Jones, the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones. Once again, the Americans have fought their way into the conversation with Canadians and Russians for producing great players. If Jones were to be selected first overall, he would join Kane and Erik Johnson as American-born first overall picks since the lockout of 2005.
It’s been a long time coming, since 1988. Emerson Etem of the Anaheim Ducks is said to have done power skating on roller blades up hills to practice and back in order to play hockey in California. The drive and determination of the American spirit has shined through in hockey and created a wealth of great players to lead the way. Finally, after nearly twenty years, the NHL is taking notice of what’s in store.