This is the week when the days start getting shorter.
And still they are playing the winter game.
The absurdities of the shrunken season continue to mount – major awards announced like e-mails from Nigeria; goals acknowledged by everyone but the one with the whistle; average ticket prices, according to Hockey Night in Canada, a staggering $1,380 – and yet, undeniably, the Stanley Cup final is a series.
Watch: Boston 2, Chicago 1 (OT)
Perhaps not worth the market price of gold, but worth watching. Both games in Chicago went to overtime, with Game 1, the more compelling of the two, won 4-3 by the Blackhawks and Game 2 claimed by the Boston Bruins 2-1.
In a matchup that pits superstars such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane against legends such as Jaromir Jagr and giants such as Zdeno Chara, the heroes have been those never heard of, never imagined: Andrew Shaw for Chicago, Daniel Paille for Boston.
But that, of course, is the beauty of hockey: the sheer unpredictability of the game.
How else do you get the tying goal from a player who hadn’t registered a single point in his previous 17 playoff games? But that is what happened when Chris Kelly scored on a confusing scramble late in the second period on Saturday night.
How else do you explain Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford channelling Roger Crozier – master of the windmill glove save – for three periods and then Gus, from the Thursday night beer league, on Paille’s overtime wrist shot?
The explanation is the game itself, a game that, despite the best efforts of broadcasters who require fancy phrases, boils down to the one singular truth of hockey: stuff happens.
As Jagr put it at the end of Game 2: “If somebody would watch the first period, they would have said, ‘Oh, give them the Cup right now.’ If somebody watched the overtime, they’d say, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be a long series.’”
Or not – it’s impossible to know.
So far, there have been certain factors worth noting. Both goaltenders – Crawford, the Canadian, for Chicago, and Tuukka Rask, the Finn, for Boston – have had moments of spectacular play. The officiating, as Stanley Cup tradition sadly seems to demand, has been next-to non-existent, with rare exceptions that are simply too flagrant and too caught-on-camera to ignore.
As for special teams – usually the deciding factor in any NHL game – they have been no factor at all, in no small part because penalties are so rarely called. Boston has the only power-play goal, scored in Game 1, which it lost.
With the Bruins gaining the coveted split on the road, it will be said that they enter Monday’s match at TD Garden with a slight advantage: they won the preceding game, and they’re playing at home.
The Bruins have already demonstrated they are tough – Gregory Campbell finishing his shift against the Pittsburgh Penguins on a broken leg, Nathan Horton having his shoulder popped back in and taped up for Game 2 – as playoff hockey always demands.
(The contrast between the winter game and summer games is even more stark in a week when, down in Texas, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Josh Johnson is taken out of the usual rotation because of a blister on his right middle finger and, near Philadelphia, the worry was Tiger Woods might not be able to finish the U.S. Open after twisting his left wrist while swinging a club in the rough.)
The Blackhawks, who may well have their own toughness to match, have surely studied video of the Bruins’ third-round victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, particularly noting how Boston checkers were able to quiet such superstars as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and James Neal.
Chicago might better, however, look at how Boston fared against the now-all-but-forgotten Toronto Maple Leafs, who had surely won the opening round of the playoffs only to – in a series of unimaginable “stuff happens” – fritter away a three-goal lead in Game 7. Boston scored three successive goals, the final one by Patrice Bergeron in the final minute, to tie the game, then won in overtime on another Bergeron goal.
The Penguins went with skill and individual effort, and lost four in a row to the Bruins.
The Leafs opted for physical play, unable to match or overmatch the Bruins in skill. They played as a team, challenging Boston’s key player, Chara, rather than trying to avoid him, as the Penguins did.
And, but for the last 51 seconds of seven games, it worked.
Heading into Boston, and the power of the TD Garden crowd, the more-skilled Blackhawks might like to keep all that in mind.
And, oh yes, keep an eye on Bergeron while they’re at it.
You just never know what can happen.
Which, of course, is why we watch.