When you spend a week outside of Canada -- especially a week in the heart of the US south -- the Stanley Cup playoffs are an idea, or a concept, like tidying up the shed or a vague plan to get together with friends in another city. But you come back and bam -- Canada's rite of spring is there like a graphite stick right in the teeth. Unless you're in Toronto, then the playoffs remain an idea or a concept -- however grandiose Ron Wilson's dreams. But in Vancouver or Montreal right now? They're very real, so we'll start there.
1. The Vancouver Canucks: historically great?
According to some measures, absolutely. The gold standard of regular seasons for NHL teams is usually one of the Montreal Canadiens teams of the mid-to-late 1970s which rolled through an expansion-softened league with one-third of a lineup destined for the hall-of-fame. Obviously the Canucks have a ways to go to get fitted for their first ever Stanely Cup ring, but their regular season performance bodes very well: While their record this season earned them a whopping 117 points, 10 more than the second-best Washington Capitals, the Canucks also lead the league in three important categories: They scored the most goals, allowed the fewest and put the puck in the net on nearly a quarter of their power plays (league average is 18%).
Only one other team since the 1967 expansion has finished as the NHL leader in all of those categories: The 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens, who went 59-10-11 on their way to a Stanley Cup victory. That team's roster was stacked with eight future Hall of Famers, including Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden and Larry Robinson. The 1976-77 Canadiens, who won the Cup as well, also led in goals for and against-the only other expansion-era team to do so. But the Canucks' mark is more impressive considering there were only 18 teams when the Habs were running rampant. The Canucks had to top 29 others to lead in these categories.
2. Which means of course, Vancouver is being set up for epic disappointment:
Anyone who grew up in Vancouver should know that talking about the Canucks and how confident their fans sound over the television is like playing with matches, gasoline and dynomite. But that doesn't stop the National Post's Bruce Arthur. At least Canucks fans will have somone to blame besides Roberto Luongo if they lose to the Blackhawks again: Watching Vancouver Canucks games on television this season was essentially an exercise in looking for holes and not finding them, but the team's excellence wasn't what stood out after a while. If you grew up there, if you knew what it was like to attend a Vancouver Canucks game over the years, it was the sound - period after period, game after game. It sounded different....And when you listened to those Vancouver crowds, really listened, the sound was different than it is today. In '82 or '94, they were bonfires delight, of sudden and unexpected belief. In the Naslund era and in recent times they were hopeful, though never quite confident. Dan Cloutier will do that to you.
This season, though, as the Canucks built an edifice that loomed over the NHL, the sound changed. It is hard to quantify, or even describe, but crowds at Rogers Arena didn't just sound like they hoped to win - they sounded like they expected it. Expected, or demanded it. They sounded sure of what they were watching.
3. The Toronto Blue Jays bullpen: no longer best in the American League:
While you were sleeping, things were going along so well: The Jays built up a 7-1 lead, chasing Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez in the process, and then Jesse Litsch handed the ball over to what was the AL's best bullpen. Canucks fans, take note: But thanks to a horrendous job by the Blue Jays bullpen in the eighth, the Mariners were almost able to take a 7-1 deficit and drop the Jays to the mat with an 8-7 victory.
The game ended in dramatic style as Luis Rodriguez drilled a 2-2 pitch to left centre to score runners from second and third.