Back in simpler times, the difference between “bad” and “good” was clear and undeniable. Antagonists wore suspicious mustaches and tied damsels in distress to train tracks while heroes shined like Superman. Blame it on “Generation X” or any other catalyst of cynicism, but most modern rivalries come down to shades of gray rather than obvious black-and-white battles. (Seriously, if professional wrestling catches on to the concept of anti-heroes, you know that simpler times are going away.)
When it comes to professional sports, a player can be a hero at home and receive boos whenever they touch the puck on the road. How often have you heard some variation of the phrase: “You hate the guy until he ends up on your team,” after all?
The 2011 Stanley Cup finals feature two physical teams who carried themselves this far based on plenty of factors, with their overall talent levels probably ranking the highest. That being said, they made some enemies along the way. Here are our picks for the players most likely to earn “villain” status in opposing venues during this best-of-seven championship series.
Ryan Kesler – The one thing more infuriating than a talented opponent is an opponent who is fully aware of his talent. Kesler came into the NHL as a full-time chirper with some undeniable talent brimming within. Now he’s almost the opposite: a world-class two-way forward who can still get under opponents’ skin. Kesler became a true villain in Nashville by dominating the Predators and hamming it up in the process. The Bruins’ defense is pretty thin after their dynamic top duo, so if Claude Julien sics Zdeno Chara on the Sedin twins, Kesler could secure himself a golden opportunity to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Raffi Torres – Torres always struck me as the type of guy who owned the face of a villain, but he justified that instinctive assumption through three rounds of the playoffs. His most infamous hits remain the two checks that left Brent Seabrook reeling in the first round, but Torres continues to land thunderous blows that won’t endear him to the opposition.
Kevin Bieksa – He’s a gritty blueliner who has been on a scoring tear lately. Bieksa managed four goals and five points in Vancouver’s five games versus the San Jose Sharks, including that wacky double-OT goal that ended the series. His rough style makes him unpopular with other teams already, but recording heart-breaking tallies pushes him over the top.
Brad Marchand/Andrew Ference – Here are two players who received negative attention for their questionable goal celebrations. Marchand made that ill-fated golf swing gesture (that ended up ultimately being accurate) toward the Toronto Maple Leafs late in the regular season while Ference flipped off the Montreal Canadiens crowd in the first round. Marchand’s scoring skills and pest-like tendencies make him a stronger choice for villainy, but it makes sense to monitor both of them.
Nathan Horton – Speaking of questionable gestures toward the opposing crowd, what are the chances that Vancouver’s Green Men will come up with an absurd comedy bit regarding Horton’s water bottle incident? Is it 95, 98 or 99.99 percent? Maybe Horton will be more of a source of mockery than villainous anger, though.
Zdeno Chara – He might be a relatively even-keeled fellow for a man of his stature, but he is a physical force nonetheless. Tim Thomas is an equal obstacle in Vancouver’s path to a first Cup, but Chara’s size and defensive assignment might make him easier for Canucks fans to hate. Fair or not, that notorious hit on Max Pacioretty makes him a candidate for villain status for at least a little bit longer too, doesn’t it?
Milan Lucic – Could the Vancouver-born behemoth come back to haunt his former hometown? Chances are high that Cam Neely comparisons will make Canucks fans queasy either way.
Ultimately, just about anyone can become a villain in the framework of a championship series. All it takes is an unfortunate hit, questionable comment to the press or an overly boisterous goal celebration to become the object of disaffection. Feel free to speculate in the comments regarding which Bruins and Canucks are likely to earn villain status in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals.