Anze Kopitar scored in overtime Wednesday to lift the Los Angeles Kings to a 2-1 win over the New Jersey Devils in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, a series that most expect to be a close one. While there’s no natural rivalry to build on, there are plenty of interesting players and story lines that could add up to a memorable final few weeks before the long offseason.
So what type of series can we expect? It’s tough to say, but history tells us that the choices are limited. That’s because there are only 10 basic types of Stanley Cup finals, and the NHL seems to choose one randomly each season.
The Seven-Game Classic
Recent examples: Rangers over Canucks in 1994; Avalanche over Devils in 2001; Penguins over Red Wings in 2009.
What happens: Everything. You have big-name stars, well-established teams, exciting games, and (if you’re lucky) a Game 7 that ends on a ridiculous last-second robbery of a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
What to do: Get ready to rewatch it a dozen times a week for all of eternity, if it featured Mark Messier and you subscribe to the NHL Network.
The Not-Quite-Seven-Game Classic
Recent examples: Wings over Penguins in 2008; Blackhawks over Flyers in 2010.
What happens: Sure, an NHL Game 7 is just about the best thing in sports, but a finals doesn’t necessarily need to go seven games to be a classic. These series tend to have all the factors from the seven-game classic category, minus the small detail of an actual seventh game. They also tend to end in memorable ways, such as on a goal nobody actually sees.
What to do: As soon as it ends, see if you can sneak in and steal the puck.
The Seven-Game Series That Feels Like It Should Be a Classic Because It Did Go Seven Games, But Well
Recent examples: Devils over Ducks in 2003; Bruins over Canucks in 2011.
What happens: It’s the Stanley Cup finals and it goes seven games, but in the end everyone kind of looks around and says, “That was it?” Oh, it’s still a good series. But somehow, it manages to fall just short of all-time classic status. Telltale signs that you’re watching this type of series include a disappointing lack of marathon overtime games; too many blowouts (which, in the NHL playoffs, is defined as any game where the margin of victory is more than two goals); an oddly unsatisfying seventh game.
What to do: Use the time between periods to board up all the windows to your small business (Vancouver only).
The Series Between Two Teams Nobody Cares About That Mercifully Ends Quickly
Recent examples: Wings over Hurricanes in 2002; Ducks over Senators in 2007.
What happens: The series doesn’t look all that exciting on paper, either because the teams involved are small markets — boring, boring small markets — or just because everyone is sick of seeing them win every year. You just want it to be over quickly, and you get your wish.
What to do: Have the games on in the background while you flip through draft preview magazines and lists of the summer’s unrestricted free agents.
The Series Between Two Teams Nobody Cares About That Actually Turns Out to Be Pretty Darn Good
Recent examples: Hurricanes over Oilers in 2006; Devils over Stars in 2000.
What happens: You hate the matchup, you don’t care about the teams, you can’t think of a single reason to watch other than force of habit, and then it ends up being kind of awesome. You never really see this type of series coming, which only makes it better.
What to do: Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t judge yourself. The heart wants what it wants.
The One With the Toronto Maple Leafs in It
Recent examples: None.
What happens: Damned if I know.
What to do: Stockpile canned goods. Duct tape windows. Make peace with your deity.
The Sweep by the Right Team
Recent examples: Avalanche over Panthers in 1996; Wings over Capitals in 1998.
What happens: This is the most basic, predictable, and ultimately forgettable series. There’s a clear favorite, an underdog that nobody can really get behind, and a matchup that seems like it should be an easy one on paper. And then everything goes according to plan in four relatively anticlimactic games.
What to do: Forget it ever happened. These series cannot be redeemed. Even if the Cup-clinching goal comes in triple overtime, it will be a bad goal scored by a plodding defenseman and nobody will be awake to see it.
The Sweep by the Wrong Team
Recent examples: Devils over Wings in 1995; Wings over Flyers in 1997.
What happens: Everyone agrees on a favorite before the series, because that team had a better record, all the momentum, or the biggest stars (or usually all three). And then the road team wins Game 1, things start to go off the rails, and everyone turns out to be wrong.
What to do: Try desperately to get a fun “cheer on the underdog” vibe going but fail, because how big an underdog can you really be if you make it all the way to the finals and then win four straight? Remember to try your best to wait until it’s 3-0 before admitting to yourself that you just want it to end.
(Side note: Careful readers of the last two categories will have noticed that the Stanley Cup finals had four straight sweeps from 1995 through 1998. Exciting! I’m telling you, the 1995 Devils ruined everything.)
The Series That Will Be Remembered for the Blown Call
Recent examples: Stars over Sabres in 1999; Lightning over Flames in 2004.
What happens: Everything seems to be going along smoothly in a series that’s pretty good or maybe even great. And then it happens: a controversial play at a crucial moment that leaves the losing team feeling robbed. The rest of the hockey world joins in the outrage eventually, because it’s fun to be outraged at the referees. (Note: The call doesn’t even have to have actually been wrong, in the strictest technical sense. It just has to be close enough.)
What to do: Pay attention if Game 6 goes to overtime. For reasons that remain unclear, horrific hockey non-calls always seem to happen in a Game 6 overtime.
The Series You Would Have Won Except for That Illegal Stick Measurement
Recent examples: Canadiens over Kings in 1993.
What happens: This.
What to do: Stare blankly at the television screen in horror. If you can hold that pose for 19 long years, you might get a second chance.