Every year, hockey fans endure anywhere from a week to two months of intense personal hell. They’ll sweat, cry, cheer, hug total strangers, and have moments of intense disappointment and unbridled joy. For the next eight weeks, beards will grow to unknown lengths, players will go from teammates to heroes to gods, and, when it’s all over, a tiny man with virtually no respect will hand a massive trophy over to someone who makes it all worth it.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the NHL Playoffs.
There is nothing like the NHL Playoffs. Every game feels like a lifetime, and it’ll make heroes and villains out of so many players. Rivalries will be born and renewed, fan bases will become warring factions. It’s the most intense and amazing time for both the players and the fans.
We really can’t figure out what makes hockey so great in this regard. It’s the same style series as the NBA and professional basketball, but it just seems like hockey can do so much more. The fans are more rabid in their approach to the games, starting right with the national anthems. They’re into the games from start to finish, and it feels as if one miscue on the ice could lead to disaster in the season. One miscue in basketball, and there’s a chance to get it back. One bad step in hockey, and the season could end.
Playoff hockey takes on such a sudden-death feeling without the sudden-death overtime even a requirement. The physicality, the emotion, and the attitude of the players on the ice invariably spills over to the fans outside the ice, and the two factions feed off each other. Last year, the Boston Bruins’ playoff run started right away with the engagement of the fans, due in no small part to the way they fell behind the Montreal Canadiens by a 2-0 series count at home.
In Game 2, Boston fans were antagonized by the large presence of Habs fans in their home arena. As historic, hated rivals, that was the ultimate insult, as Montreal won the first two games in Massachusetts. The Bruins’ players made statements of their own,winning a game and then traveling to Lake Placed, New York, to get back into the States while they awaited the next game. The symbolic gesture rallied the team and the fans as the series eventually shifted back to Boston.
By the time it came back to Boston, the series was tied and the fans determined to not let it become “Montreal’s house.” Through the overtimes that then mounted, with heroes made of players in black and gold, hockey found its way into the hearts and souls of the Boston fans. This iteration of the Boston Bruins, as they won games, charged up the fans with the way that they did it, beating a historic, traditional, hated rival in close, heated games.
The whole playoffs run for Boston took on this familiar proving ground every day. Each day was another obstacle to overcome, for two months, until the final Game 7 against Vancouver. Taking on Philadelphia, the team that knocked them out with the historic comeback the year prior, and taking on Tampa Bay, a team that was, in all honesty, more talented for large swaths of games than Boston. Then, in the final, there was the seven-game bloodbath against the Canucks, a team that antagonized Boston with the bitter Game 3 injury toNathan Horton.
That’s a story most of us are familiar with because we lived it. As the playoffs open, teams will need to determine who becomes their heroes and links to the past or future. For Boston, Horton became a hero by scoring game-winning goals in overtime, making the big shots and big goals when needed. Tim Thomas became a god by shutting down some of the best NHL offenses on his own. Each team needs to find their own source for that type of play.
This postseason, the question asks about who will step forward and be that person. Will it Pavel Datsyuk, the cagey, legendary veteran who’s done it for Detroit so many times before? Will it be Ilya Bryzgalov, the goalie brought to Philadelphia to solve the gigantic black hole that cost the Flyers a chance to return to the Conference Finals a year ago?
Will it be Zach Parise, the man who’s so rumored to be leaving New Jersey? Will it be the last stand for Martin Brodeur? Will someone from Florida step forward as Horton did a year ago from a unit that’s solid with no individual standouts. Or will a low seed like San Jose or Los Angeles ride waves of upset after upset to Stanley Cup glory?
Can Roberto Luongo take the Vancouver Canucks back to the final round after he collapsed so epically last year? And will the Canucks’ offense, caged and brutalized by the Bruins, finally bring a Stanley Cup to Canada for the first time since 1993? Will Tim Thomas echo his performance of a year ago, or will an unheralded player like Tuukka Rask step into the role and rise to the occasion as he did two years ago?
Can Tyler Seguin ignore being 20 years old? Can Evgeni Malkin add a second Conn Smythe Trophy to his lot after undeniably leading the Penguins this year? And can the league’s biggest star, the biggest name, return from injury to once again hoist Lord Stanley for the legions of fans who wear the #87 of Sidney Crosby?
We can predict, but we’ll never know. Eight weeks from now, when Gary Bettman shrugs off the thousands of boos to deliver the Cup to a team captain, we’ll know who was a hero and who’s become an immortal god to the hockey community. The NHL Playoffs are here, and if the first night is any indication, we’re in for a wild ride.
Strap yourself in. It’s game time.