By Allan Muir
In this week’s Sports Illustrated, Steve Rushin’s “Symphony For a Foghorn” cover story makes an entertaining and compelling case for why the NHL playoffs are the best in sports: “With its traditions like no other — the Kronwallings along the side walls, the Game 7s and sudden deaths that push playoff-bearded players to near death — there is no postseason in a league with the NHL’s postseason.” (For more from Rushin, subscribe to Sports Illustrated or purchase the tablet edition of this week’s magazine.)
I’d like to offer an “amen, brother.” In fact, I’d like to offer 20 — in the form of the things, people and traditions that make the NHL playoffs so enjoyable, engaging and awe-inspiring.
1. Playing through pain
Hockey players are legendary for boasting a level of pain tolerance that puts other athletes to shame. And when the playoffs come around, common sense, along with any instinct for self preservation, is tossed aside to service the pursuit of the Cup.
Every fan has a favorite tale of selflessness. Maybe it’s the story of Bobby Baun, the Maple Leafs’ defender who blocked a Gordie Howe slapper in Game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup Final, but returned in time to score the Cup-clinching goal … on a broken ankle. Or how about Paul Kariya, knocked unconscious by a brutal Scott Stevens hit in Game 6 of the 2003 Final only to climb up off the ice and blast one by Martin Brodeur to help send the series to Game 7? And then of course there’s Darryl Sydor, who was disabled by a hit in the 2000 Final. When he realized the play was continuing, he began dragging his body toward the Dallas Stars’ net, just hoping to be able to block a shot or find some other way to disrupt New Jersey’s attack. His memory was summoned by Boston’s Gregory Campbell, who had his right leg broken by a slap shot in Game 3 of this year’s Eastern Conference Finals but managed to get back on his feet and continue trying to kill off a Pittsburgh power play for almost a minute. (You can watch the play here.) Campbell was ultimately lost for the rest of the playoffs, but his teammates later said his sacrifice inspired them to win the game.
Heroic? Insane? In hockey, it’s simply called paying the price in the playoffs.
2. The handshake line
Even the Hockey Hall of Fame can’t say for certain when it began, but the post-series handshake line may be the game’s greatest tradition, a chance for sportsmanship to prevail in the wake of heated battle. That spirit is captured in one of hockey’s greatest photos, with Boston’s Sugar Jim Henry and Montreal’s Maurice Richard, both bloodied and bruised, laying down arms to congratulate one another after a hard-fought series. Of course, there are meetings where tempers haven’t yet settled — last year’s Phoenix Coyotes-Los Angeles Kings series comes to mind — but those are the exceptions.
3. Reverence for the holy grail
The NHL came up with a brilliant commercial in 2010 entitled “No Words,” built around clips of players who were unable to explain their feelings moments after winning the Stanley Cup. It might be the finest promo the league has ever produced because it captured the emotional commitment required to get to that point. But no montage could ever match that one perfect moment of reverence for the Cup: watching the tears stream down Raymond Bourque’s face as the clock wound down in Game 7 of the 2001 Final, then the exultation as, after 22 years, he finally hoisted the chalice for the first time.
4. Playoff beards
The dynastic New York Islanders were behind another of hockey’s great traditions, which demands that, as a sign of team unity, players forgo shaving during the postseason until they win the Cup or are eliminated. The beards are itchy, annoying and offensive to most wives, but that’s what makes them the perfect symbol for the commitment it takes to go all the way. There have been some Dan Haggerty-style beauties over the years — Ken Morrow, Mike Commodore and Scott Hartnell also come to mind — along with some wispy reminders of the youth of some of hockey’s top stars. (Don’t worry, Sid. Your day will come.) And now, teams from other sports are taking hockey’s lead. Can’t blame them for copying from the best.
5. Oh, those kids
It’s a rite of spring. Every year, just like this year with Torey Krug, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Tyler Toffoli, a rookie steps up to make an unexpected contribution to his team’s playoff drive. But no rookie has ever dominated quite the way Ken Dryden did back in 1971.
With just six regular season games on his résumé, Dryden supplanted veteran Rogie Vachon as Montreal’s starter for their first-round series with the heavily favored Bruins. Boston had rewritten the record book that season and was expected to romp, but the Bobby Orr- and Phil Esposito-led B’s couldn’t solve the rookie and were beaten in seven games in one of hockey’s greatest upsets. Dryden went on to lead the Habs to the Stanley Cup and earn the Conn Smythe Trophy for his dazzling performance.
6. Marathon men
If you plan on taking in an NHL playoff game, you might want to negotiate a flat fee with the babysitter instead of an hourly rate. Forget the shootout: In the playoffs, a game takes as long as it takes until a winner emerges. And if fans are lucky, there’s plenty of free hockey still to be played after regulation because nothing in sports matches the edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting, can’t-bear-to-look tension of playoff overtime. One shot, one bounce, one broken stick, one missed check … the margin between agony and ecstasy, between what I did and what I should have done, can haunt a player or define him. Four of the 10 longest games in history have been played in the last 13 years, including a five-OT classic between the Penguins and Flyers on May 5-6, 2000, that set a modern-day record. But who knows, that record could be broken tonight.
7. Seventh heavens
From the moment a kid hits the ice or picks up a stick and ball and heads to the alley, Game 7 becomes the ultimate winner-takes-all fantasy. Played out over and over again, it never loses its frisson, never becomes mundane. The chance to face the game’s greatest pressure and not just compete but thrive is what drives us. And, of course, to score the winning goal … even if it’s just make-believe.
Ask any player headed into a real Game 7, and that’s what it’s about. “It’s down to one game. Game 7, you dream about winning these when you’re a kid,” said Detroit’s Jimmy Howard prior to losing a heartbreaker to Chicago this year. And maybe that’s what makes each Game 7 so compelling. For every kid who gets to live the dream, there’s one like Howard who watches it crumble. And who waits and hopes that he’ll get just one more chance.
8. Intense rivalries
Bruins-Canadiens, Rangers-Islanders, Blackhawks- North Stars — There’s nothing like a little bad blood to spice up a series. And in a sport defined by its greatest rivalries, there’s no bloodier feud than the one that came to a head in 1996 between the Avalanche and the Red Wings. Fueled by a vicious hit from Colorado’s Claude Lemieux on Kris Draper that left the winger needing 30 stitches to close up a massive facial wound, the hostilities escalated to define these two championship-caliber clubs for the next decade. And while the players have changed, and the animosity has cooled, both sides know it only takes one spark to reignite hostilities.
9. Surprise teams
There’s a reason why they call the playoffs “hockey’s second season.” Forget October through April. Earn a ticket to the dance and anything can happen. Anything. It’s not unusual to see a top-ranked team knocked off its perch by a lower seed, but until 2012, the sport had never seen anything quite like the Los Angeles Kings.
After barely squeaking into the postseason during the final weekend of play, the eighth-seeded Kings stunned the hockey world by knocking off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks in a five-game, first-round upset. Next, the Kings swept the second-seeded St. Louis Blues, then took out the third-ranked Phoenix Coyotes in five. It was the first time ever that an eight seed had plowed through the top-three teams in the conference. The Kings sealed the deal in the Cup Final, downing the Devils to earn their spot as the unlikeliest champions in history.
10. Unlikely heroes
It’s the nature of playoff hockey. When top scorers are knocked out of the lineup or blanketed by ferocious defensive coverage, someone has to step up from the chorus line to save the show. Sometimes an unexpected hero emerges from the dazzling glare of a superstar, as journeyman forward Chris Kontos did by scoring nine goals in 11 games for the L.A. Kings, who were led by Wayne Gretzky for the first time that season. And no one ever came from further back in the crowd than John Druce. A second-round pick of the Capitals in 1985, Druce was a spare part heading into the 1990 playoffs until an injury to Dino Ciccarelli opened up a spot on Washington’s top line alongside Dale Hunter and Geoff Courtnall. The opportunity, and the timing, was right for the streaky scorer and he responded with 14 goals in 15 games, including nine in a shocking five-game ouster of the favored Rangers in the first round that set the standard for unexpected heroes.
11. Awesome team achievements
With the Kings still battling for a spot in this year’s Final, there’s a chance that hockey could have its first repeat champion in 13 years. No surprise it’s taken so long. If the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to claim in sports, repeating should be an onerous task. That makes what the New York Islanders accomplished in the early-80s so astonishing. The Mike Bossy-Bryan Trottier-Denis Potvin-led club strung together a remarkable 19 consecutive series wins on the way to four straight championships.
“The 19 straight series, we hold that record probably as proudly as anything we ever did,” Trottier told the New York Times. “Not only did we have to beat all those other teams, we had to overcome the bad bounces, the hot goaltender, the injuries, the bad calls from the refs — all the things that can beat you.”
Where other teams faltered, those Isles found a way. But 19 straight? We’ll never see that again.
12. Awe-inspiring players
Led by Mario Lemieux, the 1989 Pittsburgh Penguins were making their first appearance in the playoffs in seven years. Lemieux had scored 199 points that season, a franchise record and the fifth-most in NHL history, but his season was defined by his peerless performance in a 10-7 win over the Flyers. He scored five goals and eight points that night, setting or tying four NHL postseason single-game records: most goals in a game, most goals in a period (4), most points in a period (4) and most points in a game. The Pens ended up losing the series, but no one remembers that. The eight points, though? It’s an indelible part of hockey history.
13. Awe-inspiring goalies
There may have been better performances over the years, but has any goalie ever looked as unbeatable as Jean-Sebastien Gigure did in 2003? Beginning with a 63-save, triple-OT win over the defending champion Red Wings, Giguere carried a nondescript Anaheim club to within one win of the Stanley Cup with his five shutouts, a 1.62 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage. His heroics earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, just the fifth player in history to win it as a member of the losing finalist.
14. Most awe-inspiring moment — period
These days, the sports guarantee is as cliche as the contract dispute, but when Mark Messier addressed the hockey media back in 1994, he gave them something they hadn’t heard in almost 20 years. With his Rangers down three games to two and facing elimination at the hands of the rival Devils, he made a straightforward statement: “We’re going to go in and win Game 6.”
It wasn’t just bold. It was unlikely. Led by Martin Brodeur, New Jersey was almost nearly unbeatable at home, and when the Devils took a 2-1 lead into the third period while their neutral-zone trap mired the Blueshirts in the muck, it looked like Messier had made a terrible mistake. Maybe it was knowing that his promise would haunt him forever if he didn’t come through. Maybe he just knew he’d have to take over the game if he was going to deliver. And by sheer force of will, he did just that, scoring three goals en route to a 4-2 win that remains one of the most memorable in hockey history.
15. Awe-inspiring comebacks in games
Some free advice, and worth every penny: Never leave a hockey game early. That applies all year round, but never more so than during the playoffs, when momentum — and a season — can change over the course of one shift. It was just three weeks ago that the Boston Bruins pulled their season out of the ditch with one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. Trailing Toronto 4-1 midway through the third period of Game 7, the B’s got a wake-up goal from Nathan Horton, then poured on the heat, scoring twice in the final 1:22 to send the contest to OT where Patrice Bergeron capped off the 5-4 win. It was the first time in history that a team trailing by three goals in the third had come back to win a Game 7.
16. Awe-inspiring series comebacks
Winning the Cup the following season lessened the pain, but Boston’s fans may never get over their team’s epic collapse in 2010. After knocking off the Sabres in the first round, the B’s jumped all over the Flyers in the second, winning the first three games. But Philly staved off elimination in Game 4 thanks to Simon Gagne’s OT heroics, then pushed the Bruins to the brink with wins in Games 5 and 6. Boston finally showed its resiliency in Game 7, storming out to a 3-0 first period lead that set the Flyers back on their heels. But not for long. Philly tied it up by the midpoint of the second on goals by James Van Riemsdyk, Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere, setting up what looked like a thrilling overtime finish … until the Bruins were called for too many man on the ice. It was Gagne, fittingly, who again played the hero, scoring on the power play to seal a 4-3 win and the greatest comeback in playoff history.
17. Stunning upsets
Led by Wayne Gretzky and a cast of future Hall of Famers, the 1982 Edmonton Oilers were on the verge of becoming a Stanley Cup dynasty. As the top team in the Campbell Conference, they got a gimme putt for their first-round series: a Los Angeles team that won just 24 games. The Kings went to Edmonton for the first of the five-game series and stunned the Oilers by winning 10-8. They lost the second game in overtime, 3-2, but the series turned in Game 3. The Oilers swarmed their hosts, scoring early and often to build up a five-goal lead heading into the third period. And then, the Miracle happened.
The Kings got three goals early in the frame to get the crowd back in the game. Mark Hardy made it 5-4 with less than five minutes to play, setting up a frantic and seemingly inevitable conclusion. Steve Bozek tied it with five seconds remaining, sending the game to overtime where Daryl Evans completed the comeback with one of the most memorable goals in hockey history. The Oilers came back to win Game 4 in L.A., but the Kings went into Edmonton and won the clincher, 7-4, to take the series and seal the greatest upset in playoff history.
18. Oh, the infamy
The Red Wings built up a 3-0 lead over the Maple Leafs in the 1942 Final and appeared certain to capture their first title in five years. But the Leafs weren’t quite ready to see their rivals skate with the Cup. Toronto took Game 4 by a score of 4-3, then cruised to 9-3 and 3-0 wins to send the series to Game 7. Detroit took a 1-0 lead on Syd Howe’s goal into the third period before allowing three goals in the final 13 minutes to become the first, and only, team ever to be defeated in a Cup Final after holding a 3-0 lead.
19. Oh, the agony
Every year on April 30, former defenseman Steve Smith celebrates his birthday .. .and tries to forget the worst day of his life. Smith’s Edmonton Oilers were deadlocked with the rival Calgary Flames early in the third period of Game 7 of the 1986 Smythe Division Final when he made an errant cross-ice pass attempt from behind his own net. The puck deflected off the skate of goaltender Grant Fuhr and into the net for an own goal that proved to be the series clincher, snapping Edmonton’s two-year run as champs and leaving the rookie inconsolable. Smith went on to play 800 games in the league, but the defining image of his career is him bent at the waist, tears streaming down his face, after his terrible decision.
20. Bizarre rituals
Is there a stranger, more beloved tradition in sports than stuffing a deceased cephalood into one’s pants, smuggling it past security and then waiting for the perfect moment to hurl it onto the ice at a Detroit Red Wings playoff game? The symbolism is obvious: eight legs per octopus, eight wins to capture the Stanley Cup … at least, that was what it took when Pete and Jerry Cusimano chucked the first one at the Olympia back in 1952. The practice took on new life when the Wings returned to prominence in the 90s, when it wasn’t uncommon to see a dozen or more splatter onto the playing surface over the course of a playoff game.
According to the Wings, the record was a 50-pounder tossed during the 1996 Conference Final. Fortunately, that one made it to the ice. Not all of them do, as plenty of goo-spattered fans sitting in the lower bowl at Joe Louis Arena can attest, but as long as there is playoff hockey in Detroit, there’ll be diehards ready to test their arms for the sake of hockey’s wildest tradition.