THE A-League has a toilet seat, the Ashes have a small terracotta vase and the British Open golf has something one would use to pour beverages at a garden party.

Thursday morning commences the contest for the greatest trophy in world sport, the NHL’s Stanley Cup.

The regular season began in October, the playoffs have been going since early April, this best of seven series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Chicago Blackhawks will be won as much on determination, heart and courage than anything else.

Tampa Bay, winners of the Cup in 2004 have been defying logic for years by playing to big crowds in the unconventional hockey market of tropical western Florida.

This year they have been mighty impressive in the path to the Cup Finals, finishing third in the Eastern Conference after 82 home and away fixtures and have made it this far on the back of some unbelievably good draft selections.

Chicago on the other hand are one of the oldest and proudest hockey clubs in the league, founded in 1926, they are an organisation steeped in tradition and esteem.

Playing in front of the indeed the largest crowds in the United States, this current Hawks team will be going for the third Cup in six years and sixth overall.

The return of star forward Patrick Kane from injury alongside the immeasurable contribution of defensemen Duncan Keith, the Hawks from the Windy City will go into this matchup as slight favourites.

However the Lightning do have the advantage of four home games to the Hawks’ three, so the next fortnight is destined to showcase some of the best action the fastest sport in the world can offer.

Playoff ice hockey is something else compared to standard regular season matches. Playoff hockey separates the men from the boys, the boys are gobbled up and spat out like Clive Palmer after accidentally eating a vegetable.

Players are soldiers, they play with pain, with injuries, they carry on where other sports would see their participants quit or withdraw.

The contests are tough, the hits are bigger, it’s a war of attrition mixed so beautifully with high end skill further amplified by the storied and well celebrated tradition that is the Stanley Cup.

Every player to have played on a championship-winning team has their name engraved on the 90cm and 16kg goliath, it is equally as breathtaking to behold as the history and emotion playing for it evokes.

This year’s rendition sells nothing short of the intrigue, two truly great rosters will compete so closely and will produce no doubt a series for the ages.

Tampa have been riding the wave of a trio of forwards subsequently nicknamed ‘the Triplets’. Tyler Johnson, a 24-year-old who went undrafted as a teenager, has been the Lightning’s best player these playoffs. He leads the league in goals with 12 from 20 games, a phenomenal two months’ work in just his second full season in the big league.

He has found extraordinary chemistry playing with two absolute late-round steals in Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. Kucherov, 21, was taking in the third round of the 2011 draft and is enjoying a monster rookie season, Palat, 24, was taken 208th overall in that same draft and has been just as influential.

These three youngsters have taken all before them, their combination accounting for 28 of the 55 goals scored by the Lightning these playoffs and it’s their form that gives their team the best chance of ultimate success.

Chicago star Patrick Kane earlier this year re-signed with the franchise for the next eight seasons for $84m, seeing him become the highest paid player in the league.

That’s a lot of coin but the way he has played this post-season goes a long way to justify such an investment.

He has scored an impressive 10 goals in this campaign so far from 20 games has once again proven where proof was probably not needed that he is truly one of the world’s best players and at age 26 he is well on track in forging a Hall of Fame career.

The greatest performer though for the Hawks in the playoffs has been Duncan Keith. A defensemen who not only is entrusted with shutting down the highly skilled offense of the oppositions’ best scorers but he has been instrumental in transitioning the Hawks from defense to offense.

On numerous occasions the last six weeks it’s been the gusty play of Keith who not only thwarted an oncoming scoring chance but actually then initiated the play to the other end of the ice for a Chicago goal, a truly unrivaled ability.

These games will be intense; the grit and masculinity on display will be as profound as the beards the combatants sport.

The magical, Harlem Globetrotters-like wizardry of ‘the Triplets’ will test even the awe-inspiring Hawks defense led so well by Keith. The prowess of Kane, a three-time Cup champion already, will be on show, he is truly a world-class player and will have even the non-hockey fan applaud and appreciate.

This is a sport that doesn’t believe in shootouts or shortened overtimes to decide playoff fixtures. If a game is all square at the end of regular time, they will keep playing regular 20 minute periods until a goal is scored, as long is takes. The record is six extra periods for an NHL playoff game, which would be the equivalent of an AFL final going 12 quarters.

This is a sport that is truly defined by the small margins of its playoff bouts and the Stanley Cup finals bring out the very best in what is the fastest yet toughest game on the planet. Tampa Bay and Chicago, the Lightning and the Blackhawks, the greatest prize in sport is on offer and no-one would be apologetic for finding themselves utterly gripped by the contest, the passion, the excitement.

It’s all about the Cup.


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