2013 Stanley Cup playoffs: Penguins advance, NHL fans should be grateful


May 11, 2013; Uniondale, NY, USA; New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) and Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) shake hands after the overtime period of game six of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Pittsburgh won the game 4-3 and the series 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

God bless sports fans, but sometimes they don’t know what’s good for them.

During the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first-round series with the New York Islanders, which the Pens claimed Saturday night with an overtime win in Game 6, there seemed to be growing sentiment on social media for the eighth-seeded Isles to pull off the upset.

Hey, no hard feelings. It’s typical for folks to get behind an underdog, especially when it’s facing one of the championship favorites. One of the reasons that the 1980 United States “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey team is so revered is its victory against a seemingly unbeatable juggernaut. No one likes to be told they can’t do something, and rebelling against that is as American as the Declaration of Independence.

The only problem when the lower-regarded team comes through is that the magic runs out eventually. With the possible exception of the Butler University men’s basketball team, at some point the unexpected squad is exposed as underqualified.

The Islanders were clearly better than most NHL observers thought, as their end-of-season surge might be a case of a growing team finding a higher level instead of a desperation-fueled aberration. With MVP candidate John Tavares leading a host of fast, skilled forwards still shy of their primes, it’s not difficult to envision the Isles tormenting the Penguins and other clubs in the years to come.

May 11, 2013; Uniondale, NY, USA; The Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate following the overtime period of game six of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Penguins won the game 4-3 and won the series 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Still, the future isn’t the present. The Penguins found that out in 2007, when the Ottawa Senators steamrolled Pittsburgh on their way to the Stanley Cup Final. The following spring, the Pens converted another year of seasoning into a similar run through the Eastern Conference playoffs before running into the Detroit Red Wings.

The 2013 Penguins’ tougher-than-expected first-round victory was more than just deserved, though. It’s plainly better for the NHL and the sport for Pittsburgh to challenge for its fourth title in franchise history. While the Pens compiled a .750 winning percentage in the lockout-shortened regular season, anticipation built for an eventual Stanley Cup showdown with the equally-impressive Chicago Blackhawks.

Pittsburgh and Chicago, along with Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers, are teams that have proven needle-moving influence when it comes to TV ratings and general interest in high-stakes hockey games. Other clubs could likely generate buzz in the right situation, but a championship series featuring the Pens, Hawks or both would be undoubtedly lucrative for the NHL.

Islanders fans don’t care about this, and they shouldn’t. But the unattached hockey followers who were pulling for the New York metro area’s third-most popular team should be grateful the Isles didn’t get the chance to either be a doormat in a later round or give certain media entities another reason to pretend the NHL doesn’t exist.

Sure, I’m biased too, and terribly so. Nevertheless, a league is unequivocally better off when its recognizable teams and stars go deep in the playoffs. Just ask the NBA how the Miami Heat have boosted pro basketball’s profile since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach.

Love ’em or hate ’em, the Penguins’ survival is great for hockey. When you’re fighting for attention like the NHL does perennially, broadcasting Sidney Crosby’s mending jawline on NBC in June can’t hurt.