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The Stanley Cup playoffs: the punch in the face that says 'spring'

Elsa/2011 Getty Images

When you spend a week outside of Canada -- especially a week in the heart of the US south -- the Stanley Cup playoffs are an idea, or a concept, like tidying up the shed or a vague plan to get together with friends in another city. But you come back and bam -- Canada's rite of spring is there like a graphite stick right in the teeth. Unless you're in Toronto, then the playoffs remain an idea or a concept -- however grandiose Ron Wilson's dreams. But in Vancouver or Montreal right now? They're very real, so we'll start there.

1. The Vancouver Canucks: historically great?

According to some measures, absolutely. The gold standard of regular seasons for NHL teams is usually one of the Montreal Canadiens teams of the mid-to-late 1970s which rolled through an expansion-softened league with one-third of a lineup destined for the hall-of-fame. Obviously the Canucks have a ways to go to get fitted for their first ever Stanely Cup ring, but their regular season performance bodes very well: While their record this season earned them a whopping 117 points, 10 more than the second-best Washington Capitals, the Canucks also lead the league in three important categories: They scored the most goals, allowed the fewest and put the puck in the net on nearly a quarter of their power plays (league average is 18%).

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Only one other team since the 1967 expansion has finished as the NHL leader in all of those categories: The 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens, who went 59-10-11 on their way to a Stanley Cup victory. That team's roster was stacked with eight future Hall of Famers, including Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden and Larry Robinson. The 1976-77 Canadiens, who won the Cup as well, also led in goals for and against-the only other expansion-era team to do so. But the Canucks' mark is more impressive considering there were only 18 teams when the Habs were running rampant. The Canucks had to top 29 others to lead in these categories.

2. Which means of course, Vancouver is being set up for epic disappointment:

Anyone who grew up in Vancouver should know that talking about the Canucks and how confident their fans sound over the television is like playing with matches, gasoline and dynomite. But that doesn't stop the National Post's Bruce Arthur. At least Canucks fans will have somone to blame besides Roberto Luongo if they lose to the Blackhawks again: Watching Vancouver Canucks games on television this season was essentially an exercise in looking for holes and not finding them, but the team's excellence wasn't what stood out after a while. If you grew up there, if you knew what it was like to attend a Vancouver Canucks game over the years, it was the sound - period after period, game after game. It sounded different....And when you listened to those Vancouver crowds, really listened, the sound was different than it is today. In '82 or '94, they were bonfires delight, of sudden and unexpected belief. In the Naslund era and in recent times they were hopeful, though never quite confident. Dan Cloutier will do that to you.

This season, though, as the Canucks built an edifice that loomed over the NHL, the sound changed. It is hard to quantify, or even describe, but crowds at Rogers Arena didn't just sound like they hoped to win - they sounded like they expected it. Expected, or demanded it. They sounded sure of what they were watching.

3. The Toronto Blue Jays bullpen: no longer best in the American League:

While you were sleeping, things were going along so well: The Jays built up a 7-1 lead, chasing Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez in the process, and then Jesse Litsch handed the ball over to what was the AL's best bullpen. Canucks fans, take note: But thanks to a horrendous job by the Blue Jays bullpen in the eighth, the Mariners were almost able to take a 7-1 deficit and drop the Jays to the mat with an 8-7 victory.

The game ended in dramatic style as Luis Rodriguez drilled a 2-2 pitch to left centre to score runners from second and third.

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With two out and two balls and no strikes against Ichiro Suzuki, manager John Farrell elected to walk the gifted hitter intentionally. Two pitches later Ichiro stole second and ultimately Rodriguez delivered.

But it was the meltdown in the eighth that set the ball rolling.

After Justin Smoak hit a two-run single off Marc Rzepczynski to make it a 7-6 game, manager John Ferrell called on Camp, who has been lights out this season.

Camp needed just one pitch to pull the fat out of the fire as he induced Miguel Olivo to ground into a 5-4-3 double play, Adam Lind making a great scoop at first to complete the play.

That the Jays bullpen would implode to such a degree was a shock as it entered the game rated as the No. 1 unit in the league with a collective ERA of 1.11.

4. Based on this report, Toronto could support two NHL teams missing the playoffs:

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Another day, another study confirming that yes, the Greater Toronto Area is the greatest untapped hockey market in the world and is the most logical place to relocate an NHL team. If someone paid for that information, they should be tasered: Attempts to promote hockey in southern American markets have been largely unsuccessful, argues the report from the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation at the University of Toronto. Instead, the NHL should focus on bolstering the game in Canada where demand is greatest. Canada's six teams account for nearly one-third of league revenue. Most of those loonies end up in the United States, which has 24 teams, through revenue sharing. The report, titled "The New Economics of the NHL," uses potential gate revenue as a measure of economic success. It looks at 10 Canadian cities and ranks each as a potential host for an NHL team, based on size, wealth, geographic location and other factors. There are six Canadian markets where a new NHL team would thrive, the report found, citing Greater Toronto as the best one.

5. Montreal-Boston? What's all the fuss about?

In all seriousness, a lot of ink gets spilled trying to build up drama and rivalries and whip up bad feeling; trying to make something abtract real. And then the NHL delivers the Hab-Bruins as a first-round playoff series. Dave Stubbs writes not so much a set-up piece but an honour roll of historical grievances. And that's just for this season: But the Canadiens vs. Bruins offers something truly compelling. The NHL's longest-running playoff rivalry is surely its greatest, bookended by a three-game Bruins sweep in 1929 and a four-game Bruins romp precisely 80 years later.

The series ahead will feature more plots than there are in Mount Royal's cemeteries - or whichever Boston graveyard Bruins championship dreams have been buried by the Canadiens 24 times out of 32.

Just a few talking points from this season alone:

Canadiens goalie Carey Price allowed four goals on nine shots in 30 minutes of work on Sept. 22 against Boston, the teams' first preseason game. Bell Centre fans booed Price mercilessly. Imagine: their minds seemed to change as the season wore on.

Boston's Zdeno Chara severely concussed and fractured a vertebra in the neck of Montreal's Max Pacioretty on March 8. The day before the teams' next game, the Bruins' Mark Recchi went on Boston radio and questioned the severity of Pacioretty's concussion, saying the Canadiens had tried to goad the NHL into suspending Chara. Recchi later said he merely wanted to deflect attention from his captain - whose jersey would have been large enough to serve as the MONT-REAL SUX dropsheet.

Six regular-season games, four won by Montreal, had a total of 360 penalty minutes, 187 of them in a single match. Habs captain Brian Gionta scored in five of the six games. Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, usually uneven at best against the Canadiens, blanked the Habs for the first time in his career for his 25th NHL shutout.

Montreal defenceman Hal Gill is a Massachusetts native and he, fellow rearguard Paul Mara and backup goalie Alex Auld have played for the Bruins. Which counts for as much as the fact that Recchi and fellow Boston forward Michael Ryder once played for the Habs.

Stir in Bruins' Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand, detested in Montreal but no longer the sharpest thorns for Canadiens fans with Chara's eagerly anticipated return next Sunday.

For Bruins supporters, there's P.K. Subban, who scored his first regular-season NHL goal in Boston on Nov. 11 in a 3-1 win. The fabulous rookie defenceman can pretend he's hearing "Suuuuubban" every time he touches the puck in Beantown.

6. Only the Miami Heat could turn the Chicago Bulls into underdogs:

As the NBA turns to its post-season, a strange thing has happened, at least in the Eastern Conference: the best team with the best player in the best-attended market with a lively championship tradition has been turned into cuddly over-achievers: The N.B.A.'s unlikely underdogs play in a huge market, have no trouble paying the bills and are blessed with one of the world's most dazzling players. They play under the comfort of six championship banners.

If it is difficult to accept the Chicago Bulls - the franchise of Michael and Scottie, a 60-win team based in the nation's third-largest market - as anything other than favorites, then flip the calendar back to last fall.

The Miami Heat owned the conversation. The Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics owned the championship forecasts. The Oklahoma City Thunder owned the cover of Sports Illustrated's N.B.A. preview, while sketches of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant filled the outsize cover of ESPN The Magazine.

The Bulls? ESPN pegged them as the fourth-best team in the East. Sports Illustrated had them sixth. Four ESPN writers and six for Sports Illustrated picked Miami or Boston to win the conference. None put Derrick Rose in the most valuable player discussion. The general managers, in an poll, ignored Chicago too.

Next weekend, the Bulls will open the playoffs as the East's top seed, defying expectations and bringing a little cheer to the masses who cringed over Miami's star-stacking and preening last summer.

7. Oh, and I almost forgot: Ron Wilson says the Leafs are on the cusp of Cup contention

The best thing about Ron Wilson is that when his brain makes his mouth say the most outrageous things, his face looks like he just ordered lunch. It's hard to know when to take him seriously, or when he wants the pumpkin soup to change things up. LIke when he says Nazim Kadri's bound for superstardom; or the Leafs are 'this close' to competing for a Stanley Cup: "We're probably two or three pieces from being a true contender," Wilson said during his final media address of the season. "But I'm talking a contender, not for the playoffs, I'm talking contender for the Stanley Cup. And it may come from within. You don't know." ...From there, Wilson launched into a spirited defence of sophomore centre Tyler Bozak's play, before turning his attention to his third defence pairing - which struggled almost all season - and backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson.

Soon, he was defending his special teams record, which includes a penalty killing unit that finished among the worst three in the NHL for the third year in a row.


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