As the Florida Panthers spend the next few days preparing for their first round matchup against the New Jersey Devils, I wanted to give my breakdown of why I love playoff hockey and what we can expect in a playoff series that you don’t get during the regular season. We’d encourage you to add your own expectations and thoughts as well in the comment section.
The Upset: The first round is typically where the upsets come from. Each conference has four series, and generally there will be a team that surprises someone not only in the opening round, but potentially in round two. Remember a couple years ago when the eighth seeded Montreal Canadiens upset the Washington Capitals four games to three in the first round? They then went on the defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins four games to two, before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games in the conference final.
Last season the fifth seeded Tampa Bay Lightning finished off both the fourth seeded Pittsburgh Penguins and top seeded Washington Capitals before losing to the Boston Bruins in game seven of the conference finals. In 2008 the fifth seeded Dallas Stars defeated the fourth seeded Anaheim Ducks and the second seeded San Jose Sharks, each by a 4-2 margin, before losing in the conference finals to the Detroit Red Wings 4 games to two as well. The first round is filled with excitement, and can be totally unpredictable. It can also discombobulate your playoff pool.
Where’d He Come From? Then there’s the matter of who’s going to be this year’s John Druce. Druce was a journeyman right winger who played with four different NHL teams, who never scored more than 22 goals in a season, and that was only once. However while playing for the Washington Capitals in the 1989-1990 playoffs, Druce caught fire, and in 15 games scored 14 goals and added three assists for a tremendous playoff run. Unfortunately for Druce, he would only play part of one more season for the Capitals, scoring eight times. Sean Bergenheim who played for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season had a similar playoff experience scoring nine goals in 16 games, however this season he responded with his best year ever with 17 markers. I assure you we have not seen the last of Sean Bergenheim.
The Electric Atmosphere: There are some other subtle differences that hopefully make their appearance. I’ve always felt that the atmosphere at a playoff game is significantly more “electric”. I remember walking up the stairs of the old Chicago Stadium to my seats in the second balcony and being able to feel the energy and buzz of the building the higher we went. It was like a crescendo effect with each flight of stairs. By the time we grabbed our food and sat down in our seats, the intimacy of the arena as the crowd continued to file in gave me goosebumps. Each year it was the same feeling as the playoffs began. Everything seemed new. The nets were sparkling white, the paint of all the lines is fresh, and it actually says Stanley Cup Playoffs on the ice. You looked around everyone wears their “gear”. It’s going to be festive and intense at the same time.
The Game Is Played Differently: As for the game itself, you can probably expect the matches to be played a little tighter, especially the first game. Teams kind of feel themselves out a bit in the opening minutes, and in the case of the first tilt of this series, both teams will have been off from game action for six days. Once things settle in, the one area that is most likely going to be visible is how much more physical the play is. Teams will try to wear each other down, and you will see more bumping, more finishing of checks, with an overall uptick in the hits department. Teams will use this physical aspect to try to slow each other down. The Hockey News did a study in it’s recent playoff preview issue, and found that the average hits increased by 15.5 per game in the playoffs. While there will be less fighting since players and coaches don’t want to risk having an important player spending five or more minutes in the box, the physical play will take precedent. Teams who aren’t as physical need to be ready to respond, yet be careful not to lose composure like some teams have done in the very recent past. I’m not going to specifically point out any team, however their name rhymes with the Vancouver Canucks.
Coach vs. Coach: You’ll also see more emphasis placed on matching lines. The coach who has a real feel for his players as well as the opposition has the advantage here. One wrong move can sway the game against you very quickly, and change the momentum instantly. Coach’s will each look for one player on his team to be the best defensive forward that will match up against the oppositions top line, and cause havoc much like the way Dave Bolland gives the Sedin’s fits. Defencemen may also be picked out this way, where a coach will tell a player like Zdeno Chara to hop the boards any time a player like Alex Ovechkin is on the ice. You need to be quick on your feet here, and pay attention to every detail. Certain coach’s have a real knack for knowing which shoulders to tap, and have made a reputation for themselves in this area. Joel Quenneville of Chicago, Mike Babcock of Detroit, John Tortorella of the Rangers, and even Mike Keenan are some of the very best at managing ice time come the playoffs. These coach’s usually know within the first few minutes of a game who’s not only ready, but who has that “extra” jump for the night.
Special Teams: This area can win or lose a series. If your penalty kill can’t do the job, you’re doomed. If you can’t convert on your power plays, you’ll have little chance of either expanding a lead, or catching up when you trail. Joel Quenneville feels that whatever team takes advantage of a five on three situation wins the game. This is where composure has it’s most glaring effect. Teams will try and goad you into a penalty at times, and depending on your reaction, and if the officials are calling a tight game or not, this can determine your fate. Chirping plays a roll in this, and you better believe players try to get under each other’s skin. Rookies and young players alike beware, as your temperament will be severely tested.
Leadership: The makeup on a team’s roster plays an even larger roll in the playoffs as well. Keep in mind that the longer you go and with each series that you win, the next one becomes that much more difficult. You can easily wear yourself out in an opening round matchup, and not have anything left in the tank for the next series. I’m actually hoping that the Flyers-Penguins series, and the Wings-Predators one, are just that. Where the two go at it full throttle for seven games, and the winner is so exhausted and beat up afterwards that they get bounced in the following round. The Panthers are fortunate enough to not only have veteran players with playoff experience on their team, but also a roster of five Stanley Cup winners who know the drill. John Madden, Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky and Mikael Samuelsson all have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup. They know what it takes to win, and one of the reasons that they were brought to South Florida was just for that.
A Hot Goalie. Or Not: A series ultimately can be won or lost with goaltending. Just ask Roberto Luongo. A hot goalie regardless of his mediocre season can carry a team all the way in surprising fashion. In the 2006 Final Dwayne Roloson suffered a knee injury during a collision that would force him to sit out the remaining games. Jussi Markkanen in a back up role for the Edmonton Oilers came off the bench and almost guided the Oilers to a surprise win over the Carlolina Hurricanes, only to fall in a spectacular seven game matchup. Just the opposite can happen as well as a goaltender who had a stellar regular season all of a sudden has trouble stopping beach balls.
The Best: In addition to all the above, the player that ultimately wins the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs will be most responsible for his team’s victory. Although it could be awarded to a player whose team loses, the likelihood of that is extremely rare. The Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy in sports to win, and those who have won display the utmost in toughness, stability, strength, and effort on a nightly basis for up to an additional two months. These players have that extra gear, and the additional maturity of knowing that they need to step up. Tim Thomas, Jonathan Toews, Evgeni Malkin and Henrik Zetterberg are the four most recent winners, and you can look for a player like that to once again step up for their team and guide them to the 16 wins needed to become the champion.
When It’s Over: Finally when the final game of the series has been played, the teams meet at center ice for the traditional “handshake”. One of the greatest symbols of gamesmanship that there is, the shear fact that you may have just beat the living daylights out of each other for seven grueling games, and when it’s all over you meet to offer condolences or congratulations to each other, says a lot about the sport. If you’re team loses, and your there to see it, it’s one of the toughest things to watch since you know the season has ended. If you’re team wins, it’s a glorious sight, and you have that feeling of accomplishment, even though you didn’t play. Either situation can bring tears to your eyes, and you know what? Who cares! This is an emotional game, and the intensity of it all allows us to react in ways we never thought possible.
Prepare yourself for long days, late nights, and for a significant indentation on your sofa, lounge chair, or maybe even that bar stool you sit on at your favourite local establishment. The best part of the season is upon us.
Thanks for reading. We welcome your comments and opinions.
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