So were you like me, watching the first two nights of the NHL playoffs on television and thinking you’d stepped into a time machine?
Suddenly, it was 1986, all over again. Wayne and the boys were lighting it up out West. Bossy and his gang were still a force in the East. Was that Peter Stastny scoring key goals for Quebec, or Paul Stastny scoring them for the former Nordiques, now the Colorado Avalanche? Neal Broten starring for the Minnesota North Stars or Zach Parise for the Minnesota Wild? If Patrick Roy was on the ice instead of behind the bench, would his team have given up four goals?
Maybe, because it seemed like, in the first 48 hours, everybody was giving up goals – 53 total in seven games, six of which produced seven goals or more. That giddy euphoria coming from a nearby living room – that’s the sound of playoff poolies everywhere, off to a roaring start.
How about the top defensive team in the NHL, the Los Angeles Kings, giving up five goals in 40 minutes before their star goalie, Jonathan Quick, gets the hook? How about the Kings rallying for three straight, to put the uncertainty about Antti Niemi back in the San Jose Sharks’ minds? Colorado doesn’t do much for the advanced stats guys, but how do you measure heart? If you missed it, Erik Johnson saved an empty netter with a brilliant dash back down the ice, brushing the puck away just as the Minnesota Wild were about to score the insurance goal. Shades of the Canadian women’s team playing the U.S. in the 2014 Sochi Olympic gold-medal final.
Then it went back the other way, Johnson making the play to Stastny for the tying goal. Later in overtime, the inevitable, Stastny scoring the game winner, Colorado winning against all odds again.
For 20 minutes, it looked as if the St. Louis Blues’ Ryan Miller had forgotten how to play goal. Then for the next 82-plus minutes – as their game against the Chicago Blackhawks went into triple overtime for the first time in franchise history – you had the feeling that he wouldn’t give up another; and he didn’t. The Blues, who’d loss six in a row to finish the season, managed to get some of their skating wounded back, and they still looked a little wounded as play resumed, but they managed to look a little more like the team that challenged all season for the President’s Trophy and not the wobbly bunch that lost the division crown because of their late collapse.
Only the first game of the night – the New York Rangers breaking open a 1-1 game with three, third-period goals – fell into any sort of normal pattern, the Rangers taking advantage of Ray Emery, subbing for the injured Steve Mason, to pull out the victory on home ice.
Back on Monday, I’d suggested something like this might be in the offing – that there were at least six teams that had significant question marks in goal this season, a really unprecedented development because in this low-scoring era, if you make the playoffs, you usually have at least the defensive side of the game figured out.
Minnesota’s Ilya Bryzgalov cracked when the Colorado push started. Niemi had the hardest lead to protect in hockey – five goals – and almost let it slip away. But Quick and Colorado’s Sergei Varlamov were supposed to be money in the bank, and they faltered too. Miller looked unbelievably nervous – hard to believe for someone who’s played as long as he has, and was so good in the 2010 men’s Olympic hockey tournament. And previously - that is to say on opening night - the likes of Carey Price (Montreal) and Anders Lindback (Tampa) had their iffy moments as well.
It probably won’t last and soon you’ll hear the predictable clucking of coaches saying how they can’t play this way and expect to win. They’ll talk about getting back to basics and playing their system and their game, without actually specifying what that game may be, and may in time drain the life out of it. Everything will settle down and it’ll go back to what Kings’ coach Darryl Sutter always says – it’s a 3-2 league.
But the first round is almost always the most entertaining round as teams are fresh and motivated and playing a little scared too – and it lived up to the billing again. Let’s hope it lasts.
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