(Photo: The Madison Square Garden Company, 2012)

There’s always a certain theatricality to sports, especially during the finals: players become celebrities, media coverage becomes virtually non-stop, games become wars.

On Saturday night, for example, horse racing’s biggest event of the year–the Belmont Stakes–commanded the country’s attention.  In the weeks leading up to this race, the attention was all on California Chrome as he won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in chase of the elusive Triple Crown.  In the lead-up to the third and final race, California Chrome became a household name, and his story as the “everyman horse” became representative of something bigger in the eyes of all his supporters.  There’s a reason California Chrome’s fifth-place finish on Saturday was met with so much disappointment.

It’s classic theatre: find a hero (or twenty), give them overwhelming odds to overcome–something for the audience to root for–and surround the story with flashing lights and interviews around every turn until the end finally comes and brings the story to a close.  This is when sports become something more than athletic competitions, and they bring viewers across the nation along for the ride.

This year’s Stanley Cup Final is no different.

It’s hockey’s version of Broadway vs. Hollywood.  In a series bringing players and fans alike on a coast-to-coast journey, the New York Rangers and the LA Kings battle it out on the ice in the race for four wins and the ultimate title of 2014 Stanley Cup Champions.  And with the first two games turning into overtime thrillers, the series is living up to the hype:

“[The series is] a mix of a little bit of everything…it feels like you’re at All-Star weekend because there’s so much media that normally you don’t see.  There’s a lot of people that come up and ask you different types of questions right now,” said Rangers G Henrik Lundqvist.  “But then at the same time you’re really focused on what you need to do.  So it’s a mix of being in the Olympics, being at All-Star weekend.  But it’s fun.  It’s a lot to take in, but it’s also exciting to see a different side, I guess.”

A crowd gathers to watch Game 1 in Bryant Park.  Note that this particular game was held in LA, nearly 2800 miles away.(via @misterdevore)

Every individual game has an element of theatre as well, whether it takes the form of a roaring crowd or a well-timed penalty, a crazy bounce or a dubious call.  Nothing is done halfway: the singing of the national anthem features recording artists and patriotic flair, and every goal comes with flashing lights and music, met with either cheers or silence from the crowd.  It’s pure showmanship, and that’s a big part of what makes the playoffs so entertaining.  It’s a performance both on and off the ice.

The Rangers and Kings bring forth another storied series final this year, featuring a number of subplots and storylines that have been highlighted throughout the series so far; the Kings keep making comebacks and NHL history, while the Rangers continue to show that they are in no way underdogs, despite the fact that they trail 2-0 in the series right now.

Saturday’s Game 2, which ended in double overtime, marked the third game in a row that the Kings came back from a 2+ goal deficit to win in overtime.  The Rangers took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission with goals by D Ryan McDonagh and LW Mats Zuccarello.  The two teams then traded goals in the second (a wristshot by C Jarret Stoll and a powerplay goal by RW Martin St. Louis) to make the score 3-1.  Kings D Willie Mitchell found the back of the net three minutes later to make it 3-2, only for C Derick Brassard to give the Rangers a 4-2 lead eleven seconds later.

Then there was the controversial third-period goal to put the Kings within 1:

Dwight King cuts the Rangers lead to 4-3.  (via @myregularface)

The ensuing “interference-or-good goal?” discussion and review made for some intense hockey analysis for the rest of the game.  It was the source of discussion during timeouts and intermissions, the big “what-if” of the game.  (What if the goal had been called off?  What would this game have looked like then?  What if this hadn’t been the start of another Kings comeback?)  Even a day later, the question of the goal’s validity still remains.  When asked if he thought the goal was interference, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault simply replied, “Ask the NHL.”

Another third-period LA goal by RW Marian Gaborik tied the game 4-4, and that would remain the score until midway through double overtime, when Kings captain RW Dustin Brown tipped in a shot by Mitchell to bring the final score to 5-4.

VIDEO: How do you know if a performance is a success?  Just let the crowd tell you. (end of game 2, via @LAKings)

And just to add to this dramatic finish, there’s the fact that the Kings haven’t actually led a game in over 229 minutes; their last three game-winning goals have all come in sudden death.

On Monday night, these two teams will find themselves in the spotlight once again, this time for two games at Madison Square Garden–New York City’s biggest sports stage.  1994 was the last time New York City hosted a playoff game, so expect huge performances from Rangerstown.  There will be a lot of red, white, and blue in the stands, as well as cheering and music and hometown pride.  And the Rangers are positive that the home-ice advantage will suit them well:

“It’s going to be huge,” said D John Moore about playing at MSG.  “It doesn’t get any bigger than this.  We’re going to expect [the fans] to be loud and be behind us.”

“It’s the biggest game New York has had [at MSG] in 20 years,” said Vigneault.  “I think our fans are as excited as we are.”

In short, Madison Square Garden is a venue that demands a show, and it most certainly will get one.

So pick your hero: whether you’re rooting for the Rangers or the Kings; for the East or the West; for the team that hasn’t trailed for a single minute or for the team that has yet to lead a game, yet leads the series, remember that this series is just heating up.  We’ve seen hockey in Hollywood…now let’s bring it to Broadway.

Game 3 of the series begins at 8pm ET/5 pm PT on Monday, June 9.

Stephanie is currently a student at Roger Williams University and is working toward a BFA in Creative Writing and Film. She is hoping to pursue a master's degree in Sports Journalism after graduating. Stephanie is a former basketball player and now enjoys writing from the sidelines (though she wouldn't be opposed to watching from a press box). She quite literally turned into a full-fledged hockey fan overnight, and she is the lone Rangers/Blackhawks fan in a family of hardcore Bruins fans. During the offseason, she enjoys writing, film, traveling, and theatre. Twitter: @stephanielynn_

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