NEW YORK -- Whatever the outcome of the Stanley Cup finals, hockey has won. Throughout the playoffs, the games have been sparkling jewels in Tiffany's window rather than, as the games too often are during the regular season, trash bags in a litter basket.
It just goes to show what a dazzlingly artistic game hockey can be when its players are on their best behavior.
It also shows what a dazzlingly artistic game hockey would be during the regular season if it were whistled tightly.
Ever since the Stanley Cup playoffs began nearly nine weeks ago, the goons have been all but invisible. No wild melees. Hardly any fights. Only a few silly skirmishes.
And it's not because a rash of penalties has been called. If anything, it's because the playoff referees didn't call the borderline infractions.
"If they called it this way during the regular season, you'd take liberties," Craig MacTavish, the Rangers center, had said even before the final began. "But in the playoffs, you can't."
In the playoffs, especially in the final, you must skate not only well, but wisely.
Don't take a foolish penalty. Don't let your stick wander. Don't throw a punch. You don't want to be sitting in the penalty box when the other team scores the goal that turns the game, if not the series.
Even worse, you don't want to be sitting in the dressing room, ejected with a game-misconduct penalty.
Jeff Beukeboom knows that feeling. When the Rangers defenseman foolishly threw a flailing punch at Sergio Momesso, the bulky Canucks left wing, as the third man into a scuffle midway in the scoreless first period of last Thursday's fifth game, he was rightfully banished. Without him, the Rangers lost, 6-3, wasting a chance to clinch the Cup.
Maybe the Rangers would have lost that game anyway, but their coach, Mike Keenan, correctly branded Beukeboom's fury an "undisciplined" reaction to Momesso's having slashed Brian Leetch.
Had that happened during the regular season, Beukeboom's punch would have been quickly forgotten. Just another videotaped brawl for the 11 o'clock news.
But the playoffs magnified his mistake.
With Beukeboom unavailable for the last 50 minutes of the game, the Rangers were without their biggest, baddest defenseman.
Not that Beukeboom deserves to be blamed for that fifth-game loss, but his absence surely was a factor when the Canucks blitzed goaltender Mike Richter with three quick goals after the Rangers had tied the score with a three-goal burst. Then the Canucks won Saturday in Vancouver to force last night's showdown.
In the NHL's vocabulary, "discipline" is not a word heard too often during the regular season. In the playoffs, it's perhaps the most important word.
Just as Beukeboom's absence was a factor in the fifth game, Pavel Bure's absence for the Canucks had been a factor in the third game.
Bure was ejected when his stick bloodied the face of Rangers defenseman Jay Wells with the score 1-1 late in the first period. Without the "Russian Rocket" at right wing, the Canucks lost, 5-1.
But the Beukeboom and Bure incidents were the exceptions that prove the rule: Playoff hockey is a beautiful game when played the way it was meant to be played.
No goons. No brawls.
Hockey is not merely a contact sport, it's a collision sport, as personified by Beukeboom's bone-rattling body checks.
But when played properly, it's primarily a skating sport, a style sport, as personified by Bure's sudden swoops across the blue line with the puck, as if he were a big bird taking off from a treetop.
Oddly enough, the artistry of hockey has emerged in these Stanley Cup playoffs while the artistry of pro basketball has diminished.
During the NBA Finals that resume tonight at the Garden, the Knicks and Rockets have been playing karateball. For all the NBA stats, two are missing. Knockdowns and takedowns.
To restore order, maybe the NBA needs a penalty box. Instead of using free throws from the foul line, let the fouling team try to defend with four players instead of five for the next 24 seconds.
As silly as it sounds, if the NBA keeps tolerating karateball, it might come to that someday: Anthony Mason glaring from the penalty box.
More and more in the NBA playoffs, it's as if the game had been dropped into a trash bag and tossed in a litter basket.
But win or lose last night, the Rangers and the Canucks were skating in Tiffany's window.