The lockout-shortened 48-game NHL season was supposed to be a wild and chaotic sprint to the finish line, and it has lived up to the promise.
There was the hurry-up training camp after a bitter four-month work stoppage. There was the Chicago Blackhawks' start, a record 24 games in a row without a regulation loss. There was the Pittsburgh Penguins' surge, which featured a 15-game winning streak in March and a seven-game streak in April. There was Sidney Crosby, apparently galloping his way to the NHL scoring title until a broken jaw sidelined him for the final month, and threw the scoring race wide open.
In the Eastern Conference, the three worst teams last year, the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs, all unexpectedly qualified for the playoffs. Over in the West, last year's 13th-place team, the Anaheim Ducks, made it, too, while the 15th-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets – the absolute worst team a year ago – were in the playoff hunt as the regular season comes to an end this weekend.
Meanwhile, two of last year's Stanley Cup semi-finalists, the New Jersey Devils and the Phoenix Coyotes, will be on the outside looking in, when the playoffs begin Tuesday.
It was a topsy-turvy year, when up was down, and about the only thing anybody could agree upon was how good the Penguins were, even before trading-deadline deals that brought in the likes of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray. The Penguins were already ripping their way through the schedule, without their highly regarded reinforcements. How good could they be when all their injured parties – Crosby, James Neal and Paul Martin – returned?
But if the past teaches you anything, having the best team on paper at the start of the playoffs is not the same thing as celebrating a Stanley Cup championship two months later. The playoffs are a two-month marathon, and once in a while, a team can come out of nowhere and catch lightning in a bottle.
In the seven years between 2004 and 2011, that happened a couple of times to a couple of dark-horse Canadian contenders. In that span, four Canadian teams made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final: Calgary (2004), Edmonton (2006), Ottawa (2007) and Vancouver (2011). All except for the Senators pushed their series to the limit and ultimately fell in seven games. But with four teams qualifying this year out of seven, and two with home-ice advantage in the opening round, the possibilities of a deep playoff run have a lot of Canadian fans crossing their fingers and hoping this year could be their year.
As the Islanders did 20 years ago. In 1993, the Islanders were a young and unproved team and in the second round, came up against a juggernaut, the two-time defending champion Penguins, who had completed the best regular season in the Mario Lemieux era, running up 119 points.
The Penguins finished the year on a 17-0-1 roll and quickly eliminated the New Jersey Devils in five games. They were loaded with all-stars and future Hall of Famers that year – Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Joey Mullen, Rick Tocchet, Kevin Stevens, Larry Murphy, Ulf Samuelsson, Tom Barrasso on the ice; and behind the bench, the most successful coach in history, Scott Bowman.
John Davidson, then an analyst, now the president of the Blue Jackets, famously predicted that if the Penguins didn't win, "there ought to be an investigation." Nor was Davidson alone in his assessment. Pittsburgh really was that good – and the NHL playoffs, that year, felt more like a coronation than a competition.
But somewhere along the way to the parade route, the Islanders did what no one thought was possible and eliminated a Penguins team that finished 32 points ahead of them in the regular-season standing, one of the most unexpected upsets in NHL playoff history.
Moreover, with Pittsburgh out, a far more lightly regarded Montreal Canadiens team found a clear path to the final, and became Stanley Cup champions, the last Canadian team to win – 20 years ago now and counting.
The Islanders' upset win and Montreal's Stanley Cup triumph culminated a crazy spring chock-full of upsets at every turn, and one that may look familiar to a new generation of Islander players, trying to make some playoff noise – and who could easily run up against the star-studded Penguins in the second round.
Déjà vu all over again? It's possible, according to Glenn Healy, the Islanders' goaltender in the 1993 upset win over Pittsburgh and now an analyst with the CBC.
"The Penguins were better than us for 82 games," Healy said. "We just had to be better than them for 12 days. And anybody can be better than anybody else for 12 days."
Healy sees the parallels between 1993 and today, and believes the only thing you can safely predict coming out of this topsy-turvy shortened season is that something unexpected will happen in the playoffs.
"I don't fear anybody in the East," Healy said. "I guess Pittsburgh would be the only team you'd look at and say, 'clearly, they have loaded up.' Their two pillars are as good as you're going to get. However, those two pillars were there last year when they fell to Philadelphia.
"For the rest of the teams in the East, I really could care less what you've done for your 99 days. That's great. Some holidays I went on were longer than 99 days. But there's nobody in the East I look at and say, 'wow, look out for them.' Nobody. So if you get into the dance, this is as wide open a year as you can possibly get.
"When you go out West, I'm feeling the same thing. I don't look at any of the teams out West and think, 'they are the Pittsburgh Penguins of '93.' Even when I played the Pittsburgh Penguins of '93, I wasn't captured by that moment. It was like, 'let's go play.'"
It was a 24-team NHLin 1993 and the first two rounds were peppered with upsets. Four of the top five teams by points were eliminated in the opening round – and then the No.1 Penguins exited two weeks later, setting the stage for Montreal's memorable win in six games over the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings.
Carolina Hurricanes' coach Kirk Muller played for the '93 Canadiens and says: "There are a few things I've learned over the years about playoffs. One is the need to build momentum at the right time. You also need a little bit of luck and you need to stay away from injuries. But mostly, you just have to be playing your best hockey at the right time."
What Muller remembers particularly is how Montreal wasn't playing its best hockey heading into the playoffs, and as a result, lost home-ice advantage to its provincial rivals, the Quebec Nordiques, with a mediocre finish. The Canadiens were 4-6 in their final 10 regular-season games and then promptly fell behind 2-0 in the opening round against Quebec.
"We weren't given much of a chance to get through the first round even," Muller said. "But after that second game, when we went back to Montreal, Serge Savard [the Canadiens GM at the time] said to us, 'guys, if you play the way you are right now, you're going to win the series.' That calmness carried right over to Game 3. Then we won the next four and from there, we only lost two more games the rest of the playoffs.
"We had all those overtime wins [10 in a row, a Stanley Cup record], but it was the momentum that we built up – and how things totally fell into place. Pittsburgh gets upset. I talked to some guys in the Islanders after they won and they were saying things like, 'man, we didn't even think of you guys, we just beat Pittsburgh.' Before you knew it, we had them down and the next thing you know, you're in the finals."
By sweeping the Buffalo Sabres in the second round and eliminating the Islanders in five games in the third round, the Canadiens were well-rested for the final.
"That really benefited us in the last series against L.A., because they had a lot of travel and they went seven games against Toronto," Muller said. "So there are all these things that you don't have control over. Even if you're the best team, it doesn't mean you're going to win."
Some of the characteristics shared by this year's upstart playoff contenders – their youth, their eagerness and the fact that they don't appear intimidated, even by the deeper résumés of some of the teams they'll play – might go a long way to creating upsets.
Healy noted how loose the Islanders were before Game 7 against Pittsburgh: "I can remember [defenceman] Darius Kasparaitis, before Game 7. The Penguins' anthem singer was practising outside our dressing room, and Kasparaitis was in the middle of our dressing room, with a hockey stick for a microphone, pretending he was the anthem singer, singing the anthem in the four languages that he knew. He was this young, 19-year-old kid who didn't get captured by the moment. It was, 'oh well, I'm just going to go out and play a game.' That's just how it was. That's why it worked."
According to Healy, coach Al Arbour gets a lot of the credit for orchestrating the Islanders' upset over the Penguins because he instructed his team to avoid the big-picture thoughts and break the game down into small, manageable increments.
"Al Arbour basically said, 'listen, can you tie a shift with Lemieux?' Don't win a shift, just tie it. Just don't have him do any damage on that particular shift. And then he said the same to the next guy, and the next guy and then soon, the first period is over. Now do it again. Then it realistically came down to the last shift. We had tied all the shifts we could and we needed one guy to score and it was David Volek.
"So that was our philosophy: 'you're not going to win, you're just going to tie' and if you do that, you have a chance at the end of the day."