Look to the West for fun

It’s getting closer to Memorial Day, but it’s still hockey season in North America.

On the surface that might not sound so good, but it’s turned into a good thing this season as the NHL’s conference finals are offering some interesting scenarios.

Looking at them all, it’s time to cheer for the Western Conference.

On one side, you have the Winnipeg Jets, the team that an entire country has attached its allegiance to. A Canadian franchise hasn’t hoisted a Stanley Cup since Montreal did it back in 1993 and the Jets are their nation’s last hope.

The Jets are a team that is fun to watch with their amped-up offense and ability to improvise. They take advantage of every opportunity and just have solid players all around.

Winnipeg doesn’t have superstars, but it makes up for that by simply being a consistent team that gets the job done, most recently by dispatching the Nashville Predators, the defending Western champs and this year’s President’s Trophy winner.

On the other side is the Vegas Golden Knights, who have defied the odds. The Knights came into the season as an expansion team and were predicted to struggle considering their roster was made up primarily of castoffs from other franchises.

Instead, Vegas has blown people’s minds as its management rolled the dice — appropriate considering its location — when putting together its squad that turned a bunch of rejects into impressively fast league-beaters.

Most importantly, the Knights have a great goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury, who was seen as washed up by many since the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to give him up in favor of Matt Murray.

That wasn’t a surprise, though, as Murray is quite talented and helped lead the Pens to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles. And he is far cheaper than Fleury. Pittsburgh doesn’t look foolish here, but Fleury’s doubters sure do, even if they won’t admit it.

These Western Conference finalists are not only good matchups on the ice, but they also offer fun storylines.

With the Jets, they are the second franchise with their nickname in that city. After 16 forgettable seasons — again, appropriate according to my Canadian friends who’ve been to Winnipeg — the Jets left for Arizona, of all places, and became the Coyotes.

Winnipeg then had to wait 15 years for a team to return and it finally got one when the Thrashers had enough of Atlanta. On a side note, this is the second time an NHL team has left Atlanta for Canada, the Calgary Flames being the first. Perhaps this is a sign, Gary Bettman.

The now reinvented Jets have a sharp new logo and a rabid fan base that understands the concept of a whiteout. Winnipeg backers have worn white the entire playoffs so far and it’s fun to see on TV. How can you not pull for a team that not only has an overlooked city behind it, but a country as well?

With Vegas, the Knights are fun in their own way.

They have a flashy new arena that Northern Michigan University got to play in during the Ice Vegas Invitational in January. They love to put on a show with their pregame ceremonies along with having a wacky mascot, Chance the Gila monster.

And like Winnipeg with the deadly bus crash that killed former Wildcat Darcy Haugan, Vegas has a sentimental side to its story as back in October, a deadly shooting killed 58 people and left more than 800 people injured.

The Knights’ success helped the city move on from that tragedy and a championship would be a great way to cap off a season that started on such a low note.

All of this isn’t to say that the Eastern Conference finals are boring. They’re definitely not, with two of the most consistently good franchises in the league going at it in the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Each has superstar players in Alex Ovechkin with the Capitals and Steven Stamkos with the Lightning, and are currently two of the most recognizable teams in the league.

The “Bolts” have a passionate fanbase and their success has helped turn the Florida city into a hockey town. A fun team and a city that embraces a sport that has been unnoticed in most Southern cities makes Tampa a team to root for.

At the same time, the Caps have finally gotten their act together. Washington has perhaps hilariously been that team that perpetually underachieves in the postseason, especially against Pittsburgh. However, this year Washington managed to get past the Penguins and are two wins from making only its second Cup finals appearance in its history.

The Caps also have an opportunity to end D.C.’s long championship drought that goes back to the Redskins’ Super Bowl win in 1992. When you combine that with the little puck giveaway incident with adorable young fan Keelan Moxley, the Caps are a team you can get behind.

However, those reasons pale in comparison to what Winnipeg and Vegas offer. People tend to have a negative view of Washington in general, and there are some fans who refuse to root for a franchise below the Mason-Dixon Line. The Jets and Knights, on the other hand, offer fans an opportunity to pull for a team that is trying to boost a country’s spirits and another that’s trying to overcome a painful incident before its first season began.

It’s just too hard not to pull for both of them and even harder to pick one over the other.

The Stanley Cup Finals begin in two weeks and either Canada or the craziest city in this country will have a team suiting up for the chance to win the title. So when you turn on the TV to watch hockey this Memorial Day weekend and are wondering which team to back, make sure you’re facing the right direction.

Because the West is the place to look.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.