The best view in the house arguably belongs to the home team’s coach and the Chicago Blackhawks’ Joel Quenneville summed up overtime the other night in one word: “Wow.”
But Quenneville also had a few other adjectives and nouns Thursday to describe what was unfolding in front of him – a track meet between the past two Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings trying to wrestle the trophy back from the Blackhawks, who took away it from them last year. It was everything a playoff game should be – “great game, great overtime, one of those you’ll never forget,” Quenneville said.
He was speaking specifically of the first overtime of the fifth game, won by the Blackhawks 5-4 in the second extra period, but he could have been talking about the entire game, or the series, or for that matter, the whole of the 2014 playoffs.
Nowadays, the general rule of thumb is that NHL playoffs start out well, the first round capturing the imagination of 16 markets across North America, and then it’s all downhill from there. By the third round, the players look gaunt, they have that 1,000-mile stare in their eyes and once you get down, it’s easy to be out in a hurry.
Last year, the third round was a complete dud – the Boston Bruins advancing in four over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Blackhawks forced to work a little bit longer to eliminate the Kings in five. But this year, Chicago will play the sixth game of the Western Conference final here tonight and if they win, then it’s going down to the wire – a seventh and deciding game back at the United Center, aka the Madhouse on Madison.
The Kings have already played two seven-game series in the playoffs and Friday’s game will be their 20th of the postseason. Two years ago, when they won the first and only Stanley Cup in franchise history, it took them only 20 games to win four rounds. The Kings have a chance to play the most games in NHL playoff history this spring, and after 39 minutes and four seconds of action on Wednesday night, most on either team, defenceman Drew Doughty would talk only about how fresh he felt and how, given his preference, he would have played even more.
Scoring is up, but it is more than just scoring that has made these playoffs so riveting. It is also the lead changes and the fabulous finishes, see-saw battles and overtimes galore.
Through the first 10 games of the third round, the teams averaged 6.9 goals per game, making it the highest-scoring conference final in 23 years. In all, there have been 5.62 goals scored per game in the playoffs, up about five per cent over the regular season, and if the trend continues, it will mark just the fourth time in the past 25 years that scoring went up, not down, in the playoffs.
“It was an unbelievable game for the fans to watch, especially the overtime,” said Kings forward Marian Gaborik. “For you guys, for all the fans, it must have been a very good experience.”
Players, in the moment, worry only about the competition and ultimately the result, which is why the Kings official position Thursday was that while the show might have been fabulous, in the long run, it doesn’t do them any good to play run-and-gun against a team with the Blackhawks’ firepower.
“When we’re trading chances against Chicago, we’re not going to win that battle, said Doughty. “They have more goal-scorers and a more talented offence as a whole. We’ve got to play our style of game in order to win.”
Unlike the Eastern Conference final, with its share of sideshow moments, petty disputes and outright gamesmanship, it looks as if the players in the West are expending all their energy playing between the whistles. They are sticking to hockey – hard, but mostly clean hockey – proving the game can be played a high level, and still skirt that fine line between necessary aggression and overtly violent play.
Neither team is dressing a thug and Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter explained his rationale the other day, noting that to play the way the Kings want to, they need every player in their lineup capable of playing well against every player on the opposition’s roster that same night. So there’s no place for a one-dimensional puncher, on the off chance he gets trapped on the ice against Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
“The playoffs, the farther you go, it’s a mental battle,” Sutter said. “You look at the teams that are still playing, we’re seven weeks past teams that haven’t done nothing, that played their last game.
“That’s where your experience and your leadership and being able to play through injury, comes in – being able to set that stuff aside to try and give a quality performance.”
The quality of the performance – the entertainment quotient (EQ) – has been indisputably high and it is doing a world of good for the business as well as the sport of hockey. Marketing only takes you so far. In the end, the product has to sell the game – and it is hard to imagine a better advertisement for the post-lockout NHL than six (or seven) games of the Blackhawks-Kings series.