Thomas rescues finals from doldrums

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Steve Thomas, it seems, did a lot more than just save the Mighty Ducks.

With one mighty swat, Thomas may have saved the spring for the entire NHL. Not bad for a guy who wasn't even drafted, a player most everybody figured was finished before Bryan Murray lifted him off the scrap heap -- otherwise known as the roster of the Chicago Blackhawks -- in March.

For a few days last week, after all, everything was seemingly conspiring against a happy, productive conclusion to the NHL season.

The TV ratings were awful, slashed by 50 percent compared to a year ago in the U.S. and well down north of the border as well in Canada where a ninth straight Stanley Cup tournament without a Canadian-based team in the final series has helped to injure interest in that country's national game.

Aesthetically, the postseason had been less than pleasing, and the final between Anaheim and New Jersey was threatening to be a real snoozer, a series that might be so slow and low-scoring that dreadful reviews would pour in from every corner of North America or, even worse, be ignored completely.

These were and are, after all, two hockey clubs with little following outside their immediate markets. There would not be the kind of national interest if the Red Wings were involved or, in Canadian terms, if the Maple Leafs had managed to wander their way into the final for the first time in 36 years.

At the same time, stories began developing in other NHL cities that threatened to steal any attention that was focused on the Ducks and Devils.

Patrick Roy retired, and for the day between Games 1 and 2 of the final, the accolades were showered upon the future Hall of Fame goalie while two of his fellow Quebecois netminders, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Martin Brodeur, seemed suddenly thrust into the shadows.

The day before that, commissioner Gary Bettman had caused waves of controversy with his offhand remark that yes, the league might well look at using larger nets as early as next season.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, traded goalie Roman Cechmanek to Los Angeles, rumors that Dominik Hasek might come out of retirement and that Mario Lemieux might sell the Penguins and go play on Broadway began to circulate and Bob Gainey was announced as the new GM of the Montreal Canadiens.

In 28 other NHL towns, the final seemed to hold little interest.

With the Ducks unable to score in either of the first two games of the final or even be particularly competitive, and with the NBA Finals set to commence on Wednesday, the 2003 NHL final series began to look like it might become the most overlooked competition since the Goodwill Games.

Then the Ducks salvaged some pride by winning Game 3, and then Thomas' goal in the first minute of overtime in Game 4 drew the series at two games apiece and injected a new level of interest and intrigue into this spring's clash for the Cup.

How much interest this will generate remains unclear. In New York, the focus remains largely on baseball's Yankees, with George Steinbrenner seemingly intent on redirecting attention from the basketball and hockey competitions in the Meadowlands to Yankee Stadium, even though his sports conglomerate owns the Nets and Devils as well.

In a general sense, there's a kind of invisible wall that shields New Jersey teams from occupying the full attention of the coveted New York market, and Anaheim teams find a similar reality faces them with respect to their profile in the lucrative Los Angeles market.

The die may already be cast with respect to TV ratings, and 11 goals in the four games played so far suggests the chances of a new, exciting brand of NHL hockey suddenly appearing in this final are extremely remote.

But it's better than it was six days ago, and from hard-fought competition sometimes emerges surprise results.

NHL overtime, for example, produces unmistakable drama that other sports find difficult to match. It also produces likeable heroes, such as Thomas, which adds a sparkle to the dullest sports competitions.

Heroes put a personality on a series such as this, and for a league that is often criticized for not pushing individual players enough, that's an achievement of sorts.

A true rivalry between cities always adds heat, and while no such rivalry exists between Orange County and East Rutherford, N.J., Ducks owner Michael Eisner may have inadvertently -- or intentionally -- created some sparks after Game 4 by criticizing New Jersey hockey fans for being too quiet and laid back while viewing the first two games of the series.

"I don't want to get into trouble, but our fans here were on fire and the fans in New Jersey were dead. They were dead," said Eisner.

Just as fans at The Pond booed ex-Ducks Oleg Tverdovsky and Jeff Friesen everytime they touched the puck, so too may customers at the Meadowlands be motivated to bring a little more spite to Game 5.

What would really help, of course, would be if the non-goalie stars began to shine and enforce their will on the series. So far, Anaheim's Paul Kariya has been virtually silent, while Devils defenseman Scott Stevens has yet to deliver one of his slobber-knocker bodychecks that have so often become the focal point of previous NHL playoff series.

This is a series, it seems, that is likely to turn more on issues like faceoff efficiency than end-to-end rushes. Game 4 was filled with a rather unfortunate number of offside calls on both teams as opposed to bloodlust, and even the gamesmanship between the coaches has been so mild thus far to have been the stuff for newspaper notebooks, not headlines.

The greatest concern generated by this series, even now that it's a real series as opposed to a one-sided slaughter, is that all the rule changes in recent years plus advancements in goaltending and coaching have essentially produced a game drained of all the defining characteristics that made the game well-known in the U.S. and Canada.

There's little scoring, a moderate amount of checking, no fighting and little of the full-out attack mentality that once inspired phrases like Firewagon Hockey.

It's a carefully orchestrated chess match for the most part, and the Ducks and Devils have put this style of hockey on center stage for a very close examination and evaluation.

"They're a mirror image of us," said Brodeur after Game 4.

But sometimes the best laid plans go awry, and that may yet happen in this series. It certainly happened to Brodeur in Game 3 and almost, but for the tip of his goal-stick, again in Game 4.

That's what this series still needs. A few more accidents.

Steve Thomas, after all, can't do everything by himself.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.