Hilary Knight has won two Olympic silver medals with the U.S. women's hockey team. On Wednesday, the forward will receive the Bob Allen Women's Player of the Year award, given annually by USA Hockey to the top American women's player. In short, she's a pretty big deal. We asked her to weigh in on the Stanley Cup finals, which also start Wednesday.
There's nothing like playoff hockey. Everything is on the line. The guys have their hearts on their sleeves. And in another good cliché, I'm at the edge of my seat.
Two great hockey clubs will battle it out in the Stanley Cup finals, and I'm so excited about the East-West duel between the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings. I'm hedging my predictions until after the first game Wednesday night because I think it will be a good indicator of how both teams match up.
I'll be watching every minute, though, and I think my super-fandom as a fellow hockey player is pretty different from your average TV viewer hoping to see a fight, or focusing on goals and penalties. Here's what I'll be looking for:
The details. The game can come down to little things, like knowing which side to check a defender on, or knowing if your defenseman is a left-handed or right-handed guy. Chipping a puck a certain way against the boards can create time and space for another player to make an important play.
The veterans. Watch for guys like Jeff Carter of the Kings, who's been playing very well, and Dustin Brown, who's been so reliable as the L.A. captain. These players might not seem to be the ones making an impact, but they are always a factor. We talk about quarterbacks having a good football IQ and knowing how to read plays. Well, it's the same way with hockey. These are the players who know those details I was just talking about. They've got the brains.
The theme of the game. Most fans watch for this in some way intuitively, but the ebbs and flows of the game are important. If one team is in the offensive zone more than the other -- if that team's players look like they're skating around the other team -- that's the team that will score. But this is the more obvious part. As I'm watching, I'm also checking out the defensemen on the attacking team. Is there someone still back there who can clean it up if they make a mistake? Because if not, one small error can change the whole game.
Plays I might not understand. A lot of fans assume things will go a certain way. They're wondering why a team is shooting from behind the net, thinking, "That's awful, they should just move to the center!" But we don't know what the scouting report is like -- the goalie might be phenomenal down the center. I'm not in the locker room discussing the game plan. I know there will be things that surprise me. And that's why I like watching the playoffs.
Shot-blocking. The team with players who are willing to sacrifice their bodies and jump in front of 100-plus-mph shots is often the one that wants it most, and that can make a difference. I've found that the team that wants it most usually finds a way to get it done.
All the players I love. I admire all the players. But if I had to pick one player, I'd say I'm partial to Ryan McDonagh of the Rangers, probably because I went to the University of Wisconsin with him. (There was actually an embarrassing incident in which I tipped over on a scooter in front of him. I had a big crush on him at the time, so it took me a little while to get over it.)
The amount of ice time he logs is incredible, and he stays sharp. I don't know how he does it as a defenseman -- he's always got one of the forwards barreling down at him and he has to make a plan under pressure. They always say the smartest person on ice is a defenseman, and it's so true. Also, did I mention I once had a crush on him?
A third-period hero. I think there's going to be one, possibly in more than one of the games. It'll be someone who maybe hasn't been playing very well or someone you don't know much about. I don't know who it will be, but watch for one! There always seems to be someone who surprises.
What I can learn from it all. When I watch other players, I'm constantly trying to see what they do and I think about how I could apply what they're good at to my own game. Does someone make a defenseman stop dead in his tracks with a fake-out? How are they creating space for their teammates?
Drew Doughty of the Kings is amazing -- he's extremely shifty and can also be an offensive defenseman. He can shift one way, then be going in the opposite direction while you're still thinking about the previous one. I'll be marveling at that, for sure.
And finally, the team reactions. Hockey is dynamic, and a lot of things go into the puck going your way. Sometimes you can do everything right and the puck just won't bounce the right way for you. I know firsthand what it feels like to play in a high-stakes game and come up short. I've won two Olympic silver medals when we wanted gold more than anything.
It stinks. It hurts. It's so hard to get home, get over it and get ready for the next season. It's heartbreaking.
But on the flip side, one of these teams will experience the ultimate success -- on a huge stage. I've won world championships with the U.S. team, and getting the most coveted trophy in sport is an unbelievable feeling.
I know exactly what I'd do with a Stanley Cup. I've been trying to get my teammates to come visit my home state of Idaho. So I'd take a kayak down some Idaho whitewater rapids -- just me, some teammates and the Cup.