I'm kind of torn this playoff year. I'm sad the Canadiens aren't one of the teams still fighting for the Cup, but I'm also a little bit relieved. I just can't see our poor, injured, beleaguered team competing well with any of the competitors remaining, so it's nice to just be able to watch the games for hockey's sake and not be freaking out and pacing on every play. This spring, even though our team's season is long done, hockey lives on...and it's great. Here's the top ten things I love about playoff hockey:
10. Triple overtime. It's the last thing the purists can hold on to while Bettman brings in four-on-four OT and shootouts during the season. There's nothing like the tension that builds and builds as the game goes on. The players wear down and it becomes a battle of wills that's completely intriguing to watch. Multiple OTs are war, and that's what the playoffs are all about. The team that survives those and comes out victorious really deserves to win. Plus, it's great fun as a spectator to wonder how long they can make it last.
9. Goaltending duels. Once again, Bettman has it all wrong. He wants to make the game more exciting for new spectators by increasing goalscoring. But real hockey fans know there's as much excitement and tension in a 1-0 game as there is in a next-goal-wins 6-5 matchup. Nowhere is there a better stage for the goalies and their heroics than the playoffs, where one game stolen could mean the difference between a long summer and advancement to the next round. And every year it seems a goalie will rise to the occasion and turn in a superheroic performance. This year alone, Jonas Hiller, Cam Ward and Simeon Varlamov have all stolen the spotlight...and games for their teams. The playoffs give a goalie a chance to be special; not just the guy who backs up J.S.Giguere, or an inconsistent regular-season performer or an untried rookie. The playoffs make names.
8. Iconic photographs. The significance of big events in the playoffs is so much greater than during the regular season. What might be a nice picture of a goal or a save during the 82 game season can become a legend in the post-season. A bloodied Maurice Richard shaking hands with an equally bloodied Sugar Jim Henry. Bobby Orr flying though the air after scoring the Cup winner. Richard and Elmer Lach leaping into each other's arms at centre ice. Roy's Wink. These are the iconic images of hockey, and they come from catching a playoff moment at just the right time.
7. The weather. The smell of spring is really synonymous with the smell of the playoffs. And the feeling of excitement and possibility on the eve of the first round is the same feeling you get when the air is warming and the grass starts to grow. As a Canadian who's endured many a long winter, and who agrees that hockey is best served in northern climates, it's slightly decadent to be watching a playoff game on the portable TV while sitting in the sun and sipping a Corona. You can really see how hockey in California or Florida could be seductive.
6. Emerging heroes. One of the best parts of the playoffs is the chance they give players to step up and be a star, even for a little while. I think of rookie Claude Lemieux in 1986, and how he came from nowhere to help win his team the Cup with timely goals and unsurpassed passion. And Yvon Lambert scoring the biggest goal of his career in the 1979 playoffs in OT. John Druce making his only career splash by becoming the Caps' scoring hero in 1990. The playoffs are great for giving the unsung or unknown players a real chance to be stars.
5. Heart-warming stories and drama. The playoffs are also a time when stories are told and legends made. We watched Ray Bourque and Denis Savard cry when they finally got to raise the Cup after entire stellar careers without a championship. We saw Giguere battle through his newborn's illness and lead his team to the Cup. Patrick Roy left his hospital bed with appendicitis to try and keep his team from elimination. Jacques Demers took a chance in the '93 finals and called for the measurement on McSorley's stick that turned the series. So many stories go into the making of a champion, and the playoffs give us a chance to hear some of them.
4. Hate. Dislike between rival teams during the regular season is, by necessity, fairly perfunctory most of the time. The season is long and even if you lose a game to a team you don't particularly like, you put it behind you because there's another game the next night. The playoffs give all the emotion and passion swirling around a rivalry time to really steep and get stronger. There's nothing like really hating the uniform on the other side of the ice to bring out the best in a team.
3. Great players head-to-head. I remember in the '89 Cup finals, Lanny McDonald and Bob Gainey ground each other into the boards just like they'd done countless times in countless games in the past. It was like having a window into their personal rivalry that became a microcosm of the series itself. In '93 it was Carbonneau and Gretzky. This year we get to see Crosby versus Ovechkin, Datsyuk versus Neidermayer and Toews and Kane versus the Sedins. It's so much fun to see the best players at their jobs matched up against the best on the other side.
2. Upsets. One of the best things about the playoffs is they're completely unpredicatable. It's cliche, but true: once you make the post-season, anything can happen. Anaheim can beat San Jose. The Caps can fall three games to one to the Rangers, then come roaring back. The 1971 Habs can beat the mighty Bruins and the Blackhawks in seven to win a completely shocking Cup. There's nothing like getting the chance to root for an unexpected underdog hero, and the playoffs give us that.
and, the number one greatest thing about the playoffs:
1. The awarding of the Cup. If you can overlook the fact that a helmet-haired garden gnome gets the honour of actually giving the Cup to the winning captain, the pure joy in the Cup celebration is wonderful to watch. The catharsis of winning it all after months of deprivation, hardship and pain makes even the most homer fans of other teams vicariously enjoy the moment. They say the Stanley Cup is the toughest trophy to win in all of pro sports. When you see the tears and laughter as the Cup is passed from upraised hand to upraised hand, you believe it. And, even if it's not your team hoisting the Holy Grail, you step back and appreciate it anyway, because it's not just a moment for that team. It's a moment for all of hockey. (Unless, of course, it's the leafs (God forbid), in which case the TV gets heaved through the window and many beers get drunk to drown the deep and abiding sorrow.)
I wish the Canadiens were still in the post-season. But, since they're not, it's great fun to watch the hockey for hockey's sake. After all, the playoffs are the playoffs! And that's where history is made.