There is a generally held view – supported by the evidence of the past fortnight – the NHL’s first round is really its very best round. Everybody is still fresh, everybody is palpably excited and everybody thinks that if the cards fall right and they stay healthy, they have a chance to win it all. Just the sheer volume of games every night contributes to that feeling for fans – games early, games late, games available all over the television, forcing the clicker into overdrive.
Reality eventually sets in, and eight teams are gone after two weeks and there is this tendency to exhale and pay a little less attention, as the warmer weather makes the Boys of Winter seem oddly incongruous.
This view is not necessarily supported by television numbers, which tend to shrink mostly as the Canadian-based teams fall by the wayside – or rise if they happen to go on a playoff run. But this year’s second round, which began Thursday with the Montreal Canadiens visiting the Boston Bruins to renew their historic rivalry, features far more compelling matchups than usual.
The NHL was able to schedule the Montreal-Boston game even before the first round was completed largely because of a tweak to the playoff system. As part of realignment, the league adopted a bracket format, similar to what goes on in the NBA and NCAA college basketball. It also reflects how things were done in the days of the Smythe and Patrick, Adams and Norris divisions.
Realignment was done, partly to correct geographic imbalances and partly to encourage rivalries. Beyond Montreal-Boston, meeting in the playoffs for a record 34th time, the East also produced a New York Rangers-Pittsburgh Penguins series, which features the face of the NHL, Sidney Crosby, going into the league’s largest market, where the home office is based. So commissioner Gary Bettman’s prayers were answered (even if a Battle of Pennsylvania between the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers would have played equally well).
Over in the West, the ideal second-round matchup in the Norris (sorry, Central) Division would have been the Stanley Cup defending champion Chicago Blackhawks against the Colorado Avalanche, just because the Avs play such a pleasing, wide-open, against-the-grain style of hockey that gave the Blackhawks trouble during the regular season.
Unhappily, Colorado lost in seven games to the Minnesota Wild, but take heart. This is not Minnesota of the Jacques Lemaire era, when stultifying defence ruled the day. The Wild can be fun to watch too, and they have goaltending uncertainty again, after the man that turned the series around, Darcy Kuemper, was injured in the 5-4 overtime win over the Avs, which then forced them to turn back to the universe’s contribution to the craft of goaltending, the fascinating Ilya Bryzgalov.
Bryzgalov went into the deciding game in the second half of the third period down a goal, faced zero shots in regulation and won in overtime. The strangest stat line of the night that crossed your television ticker in the aftermath of the Wild victory: Bryzgalov, W (1 save).
But the real gem may be the first-ever battle of Southern California, the I-5 series, although to list all the freeways you legitimately could take to travel to the Honda Centre or the Staples Centre would fill an entire segment of Saturday Night Live’s The Californians (“you’ll never find street parking on Figueroa!”)
There is some genuine question about how much of a rivalry actually exists between the Ducks and Kings – and according to coach Darryl Sutter and the players, it is more manufactured than real at the moment. Players on both teams skated together during the lockout and in the off-season. Dustin Penner seems to alternate between one and the other from year to year (although this year, weirdly, he isn’t involved with either at the moment because Anaheim dumped him on the Washington Capitals at the trade deadline).
The Ducks’ Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have played on different Canadian Olympic teams alongside the Kings’ Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Drew Doughty.
“We’ve seen that before, with Calgary-Edmonton and probably some of those East Coast teams, until you play each other in the playoffs, there’s not really a rivalry,” said Sutter, on a conference call. “That was a big reason the league wanted to go to divisions – to get those rivalries. If you look at this, it’s exactly what everybody wanted.”
According to Doughty, even though “everyone wants there to be this rivalry between the two teams, I feel the players don’t have that yet. Now that we’re finally going to play each other in the playoffs, it’s going to create a rivalry. No matter who you play in the playoffs, it creates turmoil, it creates battles, and it makes you not enjoy playing that other team. So that’s what’s going to happen.”
It’s hard to imagine it could go any other way. These teams are big and physical and once they get to hammering away at each other in the corners and in the front of the net, Doughty battling Perry, Robyn Regehr putting the body on Getzlaf, real animosity will surely develop to replace all those hopeful marketing schemes. Isn’t it great?