You spend the first month of the playoffs touring the Western Conference - and its succession of cookie-cutter, modern and up-to-date buildings - and you forget about the charming chaos of trying to cover a game in the Igloo, which could makes its NHL swan song tonight if the Montreal Canadiens complete their second-round upset of the Pittsburgh Penguins. I spent a lot of time here in the early 1990s, during the first years of the Penguins' ascendancy, when former Calgary coach Badger Bob Johnson was running the show. In fact, that was around the time that coverage of NHL playoffs exploded and the formal press conferences replaced the tight little scrums that used to form around coaches, where you actually could engage them in conversation.
Maybe it's a sign of age, but I was reminiscing about those days with Tom McMillan, then a Penguins' beat writer; now a Penguins' communications executive:
How on the day the 1991 final opened, Bob Johnson went to the podium, spotted me in the crowd and called down: "Where's George?" He meant George Johnson, my opposite number at the Calgary Sun, who covered the team all year. He'd been big-footed for these finals by their general columnist, which I mentioned to Badger. There he is, about to begin, shaking his head in disgust, and says: "Covers the team all year and then doesn't get to be here? Not right." How much do you think that further endeared Badger to the gathering of writers, who loved all of his pithy sayings, beginning with "It's a great day for hockey."? Bob Johnson's name was in the notes this morning in the context of Penguins' coach Dan Bylsma's achievements in his short and ultra-successful time on the job. Bylsma can move past Scotty Bowman into top spot on the team's all-time coaching wins list, should the Penguins win tonight. Bylsma has 23 victories to his credit, same as Bowman, who presided over the team's 1992 Stanley Cup championship, one year after Johnson guided the team to the title.
Bowman (.697), Johnson (.667) and Bylsma (.639) all have impressive playing winning percentages; and Bylsma is in a position, less than two years into his NHL coaching career, of never having lost a playoff series. He's 5-0, after taking over from Michel Therrien partway through last year. With a win tonight, Bylsma can tie former Habs' coach Jean Perron and ex-Oilers' bench boss John Muckler with six consecutive series victories to start a career, second overall behind only Toe Blake (10).
Pittsburgh's inability to score at even strength is a primary reason why they're poised on the brink of elimination, but that development also underlines how strong their power play has been throughout the playoffs. Currently, they are 8-for-23 (34.8 per cent) against the Canadiens and 15-for-51 overall.
Should the Penguins lose, this will be the final game in Mellon Arena, where the Penguins have sold out 165 consecutive games, playoff and regular season.
For Bylsma, who talked about lucky suits and lucky ties post-practice, the key will be for his team to properly channel its collective emotions, knowing that after tonight, somebody goes home for the summer.
"It's not the emotions of the crowd," said Bylsma. "There is a lot that goes into getting ready and focused to play one game. Throughout the day you are dealing with that. It's about the team that executes, gets to its game and does not get caught up in the emotions ... that has the better chance to win."
And then there was this: "If experience helps, my stomach doesn't feel it right now."