Think of it as the Reverse Stanley Cup.
Most long-time fans do. They have learned, after decades of spring watching, that hockey is the only sport where the season climax does not come at the end.
It is on right now.
The season high point can at times spread into the second round. But by and large, as NHL playoffs grew from two rounds to three and now to four, hockey became the only sport known where interest goes down as the playoffs move along.
Baseball, of course, peaks at the World Series. Football has the Super Bowl and the Grey Cup as season finales.
But hockey? Not the same at all.
By the time the Stanley Cup is decided – this year it could be as late as June 28, when the days are already getting shorter – hockey-mad Canadians will still be watching but the television numbers will not tell the whole story. They will be watching in part out of passion, especially in the unlikely event of a home team still standing, in part out of habit, in part boredom. Wars of attrition actually aren’t as interesting as they are played up to be.
By the fourth round, hockey has slipped hugely from the conversation power it holds in the opening round or two. Those who cover the final – believe me, this is a fact – are by late June praying for a sweep, the very worst that can happen to what should be a championship moment.
But the opening round … this is the NHL’s great glory.
There is hockey on every night, often several games. And the excitement is often matched by the unexpected.
Just take Tuesday’s opening night of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs as but one example of irrefutable evidence:
Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom goes down in the warmup, forcing backup Josh Harding – having played but five games this year after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – into the net, and Harding dramatically carries his team to overtime before losing 2-1 to the top team of the regular season, Chicago Blackhawks.
Ageless Teemu Selanne, 42 going on 22, scores the winning goal in the third period to lead his Anaheim Ducks to a 3-1 victory over the once-so-powerful Detroit Red Wings.
The St. Louis Blues dump defending-Stanley-Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings 2-1 on a short-handed overtime goal by Alex Steen after an incredibly sloppy play by Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick – last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And that is just opening night.
Wednesday night, the first round turned to the east, where dramatics were already well-scripted by sending ultra-shy Toronto Maple Leafs sniper Phil Kessel up against the loud and brash team that gave up on him, Boston Bruins. When will Sidney Crosby return from his busted jaw to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins against the New York Islanders and sudden superstar John Tavares?
In the Western Conference, could the Vancouver Canucks start to live up to their rapidly aging promise as they met the San Jose Sharks, equal mystery achievers?
Thursday will see the remaining teams begin the postseason: Montreal Canadiens flamboyant young defenceman P.K. Subban against Ottawa Senators brilliant young defender Erik Karlsson; hockey’s two most polarizing personalities – Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and New York Rangers coach John Tortorella – meeting in Washington.
As Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson put it Tuesday: “a lot of good storylines.”
The best stories – crushing to some, exhilarating to others – come in upsets, something that is virtually a tradition in the first two rounds. The Red Wings, for all their modern success, have been victimized numerous times in Round 1 (Edmonton Oilers in 2006, Anaheim in 2003, San Jose Sharks in 1994). And only last year the lowly Kings dumped the high-flying Canucks in a mere five games before going on to win the Stanley Cup.
Dramatic upsets can happen in second rounds, as well, none more famous than the 1986 “own goal” that stopped the Oilers, sending the Calgary Flames on to the final, which they lost to Montreal, and denying Wayne Gretzky’s team a shot at five consecutive Stanley Cups.
Such, of course, is the beauty of hockey every night, results every morning, talk all day long and into the next night.
It helps, of course, to still have a chill in the air and, in some parts of the country, snow on the ground.
It is, after all, hockey. A game that should not, under any circumstances, be played on June 28, when the days are so precious and already growing shorter.
(Just for the record, on this date in 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs became Stanley Cup champions.)