It didn’t take long for hockey to remind us why its postseason is better and more dramatic than any other in professional sports. Two nights in, both No. 1 seeds have already dropped a home game—one of them in overtime. The No. 2 seed in the east is also down 1-0 to a team that needed a shootout in the last game of the regular season just to get into the playoffs. And the defending Stanley Cup champions are also down 1-0, having lost their opener at home. Even when the favorites did win an opener—Buffalo over Boston and Vancouver over Los Angeles—the games were one goal, down-to-the-wire finishes.
Danny Gare, the ex-Sabre who now does TV in Buffalo was so excited after Ryan Miller had (again) rescued his team that his opening comment on the postgame show was: “It’s always important to get two points on a night like this.”
I get what he’s saying, but we aren’t counting points anymore—just wins.
The fact that the Colorado Avalanche and Montreal Canadiens opened the playoffs with wins is certainly something for people to take note of even at this very early stage of the two-month grind that’s ahead. I think that’s especially true in the case of the Avalanche and the San Jose Sharks. A year ago the Sharks were the best team in the league in the regular season, then lost in the first round to the Anaheim (Mighty) Ducks. They have a history of playoff failures after sterling regular seasons. So I have no doubt that semi-panic is already setting in out there and, regardless of what the players say about this being a different year and all the clichés athletes spit out, they have to be doubting themselves just a little bit.
Of course in Washington there’s already mass semi-panic. One local radio host wondered this morning if the Capitals would be ‘blown up,’ if they lost this series to the Canadiens. This about a team that easily won The Presidents Cup this season (best regular season record) and is still one of the youngest teams in hockey. Plus, even though losing the opening game isn’t encouraging, there really isn’t any reason for the Caps—unlike the Sharks—to be all that nervous yet.
A year ago, the Caps dropped the first two games at home in the first round to the New York Rangers and trailed the series 3-1, largely because Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundquist was off-the-charts for four games. But Lundquist finally wore down under the barrage of Washington shots and the Capitals won the series in seven. They then lost in seven to the Penguins, who went on to win The Stanley Cup.
This is a better Washington team than a year ago. Jose Theodore had a much better year in goal and isn’t likely to be yanked again (as he was after one game last year) in favor of a 21-year-old kid with no playoff experience. They have more experience because of a couple of trades made by general manager George McPhee and their stars are a year more experienced.
All of that isn’t going to keep DC fans from getting into a state every time the Caps lose a postseason game. This is a town that has endured the worst owner in sports for 11 years in football; a star player who knocked himself out for a season because he thought guns were toys in basketball; and a baseball team that has gone through back-to-back 100-loss seasons. The hockey team is the town jewel right now and the thought of not making it AT LEAST to the Cup finals makes people around here a little bit ill.
Of course upsets happen in the hockey playoffs all the time. In fact, a No. 1 seed has lost to a No. 8 seed three times in the last 10 years. A seven seed beating a two seed isn’t uncommon either. Upsets like that almost never happen in the NBA. The reason is goaltending. A great goalie can make an inferior team competitive and an average goalie can make a superior team vulnerable. That’s why home ice seems to mean so little in hockey. I sometimes wonder if a road team wouldn’t struggle more if the fans simply sat silently throughout the game. Athletes get used to noise, in fact, even when it’s hostile, they enjoy it. Most will tell you that the hardest thing to do—home or road—is play in front of empty seats or a dead crowd.
One reason I believe The Philadelphia Flyers (the No. 7 seed that needed the shootout just to make postseason this past Sunday) can beat The New Jersey Devils is goaltending. Now THAT really sounds stupid doesn’t it? No one has been better in goal in the NHL the last 15 years than Martin Brodeur and he had another brilliant season at the age of 37 this year.
But I think he’s been overplayed—77 games. And I think the Devils are TOO dependent on him. He has to save 37 of 38 shots (or 38 of 38) just about every night for them to win. He’s certainly done it in the past but the Devils haven’t been a good playoff team for a while now (last Cup in 2003) and I think that has a lot to do with it. If they DO survive the Flyers I just don’t see how they can go deep unless Brodeur is even more superhuman than he’s been in the past.
Regardless of who advances—I still think the Caps beat Montreal in five or six in case anyone cares—the next two months are going to be fun. One thing I love about this time of year is finally being off the road for a while and getting to switch back-and-forth at night between the hockey playoffs and baseball—although I have to admit, as much as I love baseball it is tough to take your eyes off a hockey game that is either tied or a one goal game. On the rare occasion of a blowout, then you move over to the baseball. The last two nights I haven’t seen a lot of baseball—although I did get to see some of the Mets win over the Rockies yesterday afternoon. My guess is they will never lose another game. Omar has a plan.
That’s an issue for later. For now, I’ll look forward to seeing if the favorites can bounce back in their game twos (they usually do but not always) and I can’t wait until—almost inevitably—there are game sevens. There’s nothing quite like a game seven in a hockey playoff in sports EXCEPT a game seven that goes into overtime.
One note on my Vin Scully/baseball broadcasters column on Wednesday: I would NEVER slight Ernie Harwell, who was wonderful to listen to (I used to be able to pick him up on WJR 760 at night when I was younger) and an absolute mensch—as my mother would say—as a human being. I was focusing on guys who are still working on Wednesday but completely agree with all the comments on Ernie. And for the guy who confused SKIP Caray with CHIP Caray, SKIP was one of the great characters both behind a microphone and in person. I once asked him how old his dad (Harry) was and he said, “Well, ten years ago dad was 74. Now I think he’s 72. I figure I’ll go past him in another dozen years or so."