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Thrilling Cup finals helping NHL reverse alarming trend

CHICAGO -- The rich potential for this Stanley Cup finals to capture our imagination got a boost with a Game 2 gem that took your breath away.

"Yeah, I'll be honest, I don't know how somebody could leave that rink last night and not be an instant hockey fan, if that was your first game," observed Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper on Sunday.

The question is whether the rest of the series can continue in that vein, whether we can have the kind of championship finals that measures up to some of the real good ones we’ve had in recent memory.

For me, the 2008 and 2009 Cup finals pitting the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings are the standard of the salary-cap era: back-and-forth, entertaining hockey that left you wanting more well after the commissioner took to the red carpet at the end of it.

On paper, the Chicago Blackhawks and Lightning have the ability to deliver that kind of series. Game 2 was the proof. Game 3 is Monday, 8 p.m. ET, in Chicago, with the series tied 1-1.

"You definitely don't want to be watching this time of year, but it was great hockey with good chances for both sides and a lot of skill and speed," Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby told ESPN.com via email Sunday, saying he watched the game. "I am sure fans are enjoying it."

It’s the kind of hockey Crosby enjoys watching and playing too, which was certainly the case when he led his team to those two finals versus the Wings.

Valtteri Filppula shared that ice with Crosby in those two Cup finals. We’re early in these finals, but the former Red Wings center sees the potential for the same kind of breathtaking hockey.

"Yeah, I think it was really quick, a lot of back and forth," Filppula said Sunday of the previous night's 4-3 Lightning win. "That was kind of the same way I felt those series were back in ’08 and ’09 as well."

I will admit that I am almost begging for this narrative to come true. I haven’t felt this strongly in a very long time about the need for the Cup finals to measure up as far as their elegance on the ice.

For the first time since the 2005 lockout and the important changes that the NHL enacted to open up the game, this season felt like a major step back, including the first two rounds of the playoffs.

It’s not just wanting goals, but rather wanting more teams to embrace a philosophy that’s game-positive.

Here’s why there’s hope:

"The best defense is being on offense with puck control against a team like this," Blackhawks star captain Jonathan Toews said in French on Sunday.

"I think your best defense is having the puck," Cooper said about four hours later Sunday.

Perfect. That’s what we all want to hear. Go, go, go.

Colorado Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy back in preseason said without any hesitation that he didn’t want his team to just grow into a contender but also to play a style of game that entertains its fans.

God bless him. It’s a mantra that clearly bucks the trend. But his team regressing so dramatically this season and missing the playoffs certainly didn’t help popularize his approach.

The Cup finals matchup absolutely can be not so much a sport-saving moment -- let’s not overstate things -- but perhaps a sport-healing series at least.

We are going the wrong direction as a sport. Five more games like Saturday night and the Bolts and Blackhawks will perhaps change some minds in a copycat league.

"To me, it's a speed sport," began Cooper on Sunday when I asked him for his organic philosophy on how he believes the game should be played. "These guys are phenomenal athletes. Ultimately, I coach games to win games. I guess there's different ways to do that. But we believe these guys have these abilities, why not take advantage of them?

"I'm a big believer in literally playing the whole game skating forwards. I think you can do that. So, if you can have it as much as you can, it's really tough for the other team to score."

As Mike Babcock and Team Canada proved in their keep-away clinic at the Sochi Olympics a year and a half ago, even low-scoring games can be incredibly entertaining if you’re doing it with all-world skill controlling the game.

A great defensive play when it involves Duncan Keith or Victor Hedman displaying their vision and skating in closing a gap or breaking up a scoring chance can be fun to watch, to be sure.

So are two incredibly talented teams going up and down the ice at each other. Like we had for stretches Saturday night.

"I thought it was good hockey for the fans," Lightning winger Ondrej Palat said Sunday.

"I think [Saturday] night you saw it go both ways, especially in the second period, a lot of scoring,” said Toews.

"Probably some entertaining hockey to watch. Obviously we want to smarten up and not let them get away with their playmaking skills as much as we did [Saturday]. I think that's something we can expect. It's going to get better and better as the series goes along."

Listen, we all know the only thing players at this point truly care about is a "W." Style marks aren’t a high priority. But if you truly believe that playing in that fashion also happens to get you wins, then it’s the kind of philosophy that anyone can get behind.

"I think right after the game, you're happy to get the win, obviously," said Lightning veteran blueliner Braydon Coburn. "I think a few guys noted that the game was fast. There was a lot of up-and-down action. Everything happened quick out there as opposed to some other series and some other games.

"I thought that might have been one of the fastest ones we played so far in the playoffs. Both teams, back and forth. Guys making plays quickly with the puck, just the pace up and down the ice."

Veteran Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook saw the same thing.

"They're a fast team. We're a fast team," Seabrook said Sunday. "I think both teams move the puck extremely well. The defenses jump up and create, you know, odd-man rushes, four or five guys skating up the ice.

"It's fast when you're out there. I don't know what it looks like on TV. It's been a fast series so far. I'm sure, you know, it's not going to stop."

More please. Pretty, pretty please. The sport needs it.