It being Easter Weekend, perhaps we should also quietly celebrate one of the greatest opening rounds of playoff hockey in memory.
The Tampa Bay Lightning – having tied the NHL regular-season record with 62 wins – gone in four straight. Nikita Kucherov, the Art Ross Trophy winner with 128 points and widely predicted to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs, held to two assists. The four division leaders – Tampa, Washington Capitals, Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames – all having stumbled, stumbling or fighting to recover from an early stumble. The Blues, last in the NHL when the New Year turned, with the possibility of moving into the second round when they play the Winnipeg Jets in St. Louis on Saturday night.
The surprises, even shocks, are everywhere and affect even teams that long ago lost any hope of postseason attention. The Ottawa Senators, dead last in the regular season, have to watch their discarded soar: Mark Stone tied for the playoff scoring lead with 10 points for the Las Vegas Golden Knights; Matt Duchene and Erik Karlsson tied for third place with seven points each, Duchene for the Columbus Blue Jackets, Karlsson for the San Jose Sharks; two former Senators goaltenders, Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars and Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders, second and third in goals-against average.
It has indeed been a fascinating first two weeks in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s far from unusual for the first-round series – though perhaps it’s just more apparent than usual this year.
Hockey aficionados have long argued that the true high point of the hockey season is Round 1 and can also include Round 2. Hockey is the only sport known where the season climax comes long before the actual Cup is raised over the head of someone still able to stand.
The opening rounds are a time of hockey every night, twice a night for those who stay up late, and it comes at a time when people are generally still inside in the evenings.
That will not last. For much of Canada, this Winter of Greatest Discontent has left a cabin fever and fresh-air itch that will soon triumph over hockey start times as thoughts turn, finally, to yards and gardens and bikes and open water.
Once again, Round 4 of the playoffs, the Stanley Cup final, will stretch far into May and likely into June, that time of year most treasured by Canadians. And unless one of the “home” teams – Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto – is still involved, the later rounds tend to become background noise, barely watched or watched not at all.
As everyone knows, the last Canadian team to win the Cup was the Montreal Canadiens, 26 years ago. Since then, the Vancouver Canucks have twice reached the final (1994, 2011), the Flames in 2004, the Edmonton Oilers in 2006 and the reborn Senators in 2007. No wonder Canadian interest falls off even if TVs remain on.
Not much beyond Easter, in fact, would not be a bad time to call an end to NHL hockey, just as minor hockey and beer leagues have wound up their seasons.
Previous Stanley Cups were won on St. Patrick’s Day (1893) and Valentine’s Day (1896). The last time the Ottawa Senators won the Stanley Cup, the final game was played on April 13, 1927.
The last Stanley Cup awarded during the Original Six years went, of course, to the 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs. The final game was played on May 2 – a date the current Leafs surely hope to reach again, though it would still be a considerable distance from the final.
To say times have changed would be a ridiculous understatement. Tickets for the last game of the 1967 final could be had for $7. A Friday search of Ticketmaster for Scotiabank Arena seats to Sunday’s match between the Leafs and Boston Bruins found the cheapest one going for $298.75 in section 311, while the most expensive seat, section 120, row 3, was listed for $3,000.
That figure, coincidentally, is exactly what 1967 Leafs coach Punch Imlach hoped would fire up his aging team. He took 3,000 Canadian $1 bills – anyone remember them? – and “tiled” the dressing-room floor with the money.
That $3,000 represented the bonus each player would receive for winning the Cup. Most of the players needed that money, for most of them also held jobs outside of hockey to make ends meet. Tim Horton, believe it or not, was the name of a player on that team.
Less than a year ago, the Maple Leafs signed free agent John Tavares to a seven-year US$77-million contract, which partly explains the $3,000 seat.
This summer, the team’s leading scorer, Mitch Marner, and so-far playoff hero, will be a restricted free agent. Boston’s Brad Marchand has said Marner is worth US$12-million a year and that figure might not be too much of an exaggeration considering Tavares leads the league in annual pay with US$15.9-million, while Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price each made US$15-million this season.
Sadly, hockey fans accept that neither the salaries nor the ticket prices are likely to be rolled back.
But perhaps the NHL might do us all a favour by rolling back the playoffs so that hockey ends when it should end.