It has been 682 days since the last truly meaningful game was played in the NHL. On June 7, 2004, the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Calgary Flames 2-1 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Since then, we've had a lockout, an entire season including the playoffs lost, a new labor agreement with a salary cap, a set of new rules and a surprisingly successful regular season, for what regular seasons are worth, which is usually not much beyond figuring out who plays who in the postseason.
This regular season meant a little more, since it meant the return of the NHL from the abyss. It's not all the way back and may never be. But fans returned to the arenas, filling them to 91.7 percent capacity and setting an attendance record. And they were rewarded with a game that featured skating, offensive flow and energy more reminiscent of the highflying '80s than the sludgy '90s and '00s.
Lots of power plays too, if you like that sort of thing.
And now, on Friday, Day 683 since the Lightning made a snowbird out of Lord Stanley, the NHL playoffs finally begin again. It's about time. There's nothing quite like NHL playoff hockey, especially when games go to overtime, and double especially when series go to a Game 7.
The comeback season's most gimmicky innovation, the overtime shootout, is packed away for the year. That's OK. Shootouts are fun, but only because they approximate for a few minutes the same kind of intensity that accompanies every minute of the playoffs. This is the real thing.
If there's a downside to these playoffs, it's that the NHL's marquee rookies, Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, aren't in them. That's not much of a downside, though, and these playoffs will have a couple of big-time rookies: New York Rangers Henrik Lundqvist, who led Sweden to a gold medal at the Olympics, and Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf.
The upside is the improved game, thanks to the rules changes that encouraged offense and discouraged the neutral-zone trap, and especially thanks to the crackdown on obstruction, often advertised in the past and actually implemented this year.
It's an open question whether the crackdown will stick at playoff time, or whether the refs will swallow their whistles and let 'em play, a postseason custom.
I'm rooting for them to stick to the crackdown. The major criticism has been that the parade to the penalty box has taken the rhythm out of the game, which is constantly interrupted. I'll trade that rhythm for the greater freedom for skaters any day.
Call me crazy, but I prefer a league where Jaromir Jagr is a top performer to one where Bob Probert is. I also like power plays. They lead to goals, and I like goals. They make that pretty red light behind the net come on. That light was dark for too long.
A quick survey of the eight first-round series. The first pucks drop Friday at 8 p.m. EDT in Detroit and Ottawa.
(8) Edmonton Oilers vs. (1) Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings easily led the league with 124 points, but don't forget they're in the same division as Columbus, Chicago and St. Louis, three of the worst four teams in the league. They went, get this, 21-1-2 against those three teams.
By way of comparison, the Dallas Stars, the second best team in the conference with 112 points, went 13-9-2 against Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix, the three bottom teams in their division.
But the Wings are also still legitimate Cup favorites, adjusting nicely to the salary-cap age by hacking away at the roster and ending up with ... the Detroit Red Wings. And they've been bounced early the last two playoff years so they're not likely to be complacent.
The Oilers are in the playoffs thanks to the Vancouver Canucks' swan dive, and don't figure to be a serious threat.
(7) Colorado Avalanche vs. (2) Dallas Stars
Joe Sakic is still here, but these are not the Avalanche of the glory years anymore. There might be a little bit of fool's gold in the Stars' point total, since they led the league in shootout wins, a skill that won't help them in the playoffs.
The Stars also have Marty Turco in goal, which doesn't inspire confidence.
(6) Anaheim Mighty Ducks vs. (3) Calgary Flames
Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff is carrying the team, and maybe he'll carry them all the way back to the Finals, which would be good news for Flames fans and lousy news for Calgary strip clubs. But while their bruising style can take the Flames far at playoff time, I don't think they have enough firepower to win it all.
The Ducks got hot in the second half. A rejuvenated Teemu Selanne is the leader, and don't forget it was only three years ago when goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere carried them to the Stanley Cup Finals. An upset over the Flames wouldn't be a shock.
(5) San Jose Sharks vs. (4) Nashville Predators
The Sharks are as hot as they come, having rebounded from a disastrous start after trading for superstar Joe Thornton. The Preds finished with a better record than San Jose, but they did it the other way around -- hot in the fall, not so hot lately.
And they're without starting goalie Tomas Vokoun. And they give away a lot of size and some speed to the Sharks. The Predators had better make the most of their home-ice advantage.
(8) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (1) Ottawa Senators
The last champs have struggled this year, but a lot of the characters who led them to the Cup in 2004 -- Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, etc. -- are still here. But inconsistency among the skaters and goalies Sean Burke and John Grahame has turned the Lightning into a middle-of-the-pack team, 16th in scoring, 18th in goals allowed.
The Senators have troubles of their own, starting with the mysterious injury status of goalie Dominic Hasek. Ray Emery has done a nice job filling in for Hasek, who may or may not return by June, but this will be his first postseason. The Senators are monsters when healthy, outscoring opponents by more than 100 goals this year.
(7) Montreal Canadiens vs. (2) Carolina Hurricanes
Nobody has adapted to the new rules better than the Hurricanes, who raced to the No. 2 seed by pretty much skating like hell and not taking too many penalties. They're without winger Eric Cole for at least part of the postseason and maybe all of it, which will hurt them, and we'll have to see if their style is suited for the playoffs.
The Habs are an up-tempo team as well, which should make this an exciting series to watch. They can't match the Hurricanes' scoring depth, though, and don't match up well with them defensively.
(6) New York Rangers vs. (3) New Jersey Devils
The Devils kind of oozed their way through the first part of the season, but they turned it around and now enter the playoffs on an 11-game winning streak. And they've still got Martin Brodeur between the pipes. So watch out.
The Rangers, meanwhile, enter their first postseason since 1997 -- thank goodness for the new labor agreement that's given small-market teams like the Blueshirts a chance to compete again! -- on a five-game losing streak. Not many people picked them to make the playoffs this year, but a reborn Jagr and a spectacular rookie campaign by Lundqvist have given them a chance to, well, be cannon fodder for the Devils, most likely.
(5) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (4) Buffalo Sabres
The Flyers are a bruising mix of veterans and kids. Expected to be a conference power, they've struggled with injuries and inconsistency, and their goalie, Robert Esche, isn't elite. They're a much better team when the fragile Peter Forsberg is in the lineup. He missed five of the last seven games with a groin injury, but is expected to play against Buffalo.
The Sabres don't have stars. They were sixth in the league in goals, but their leading goal scorer, Chris Drury, finished in a six-way tie for 42nd. Drury led the team with a mere 30 goals, but eight other players scored at least 18. That depth figures to be more than the Flyers can handle.
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Run, A.J., run! [PERMALINK]
Remember all that talk during the American League playoffs last fall about A.J. Pierzynski's heads-up play, running to first on what was called a dropped third strike against the Los Angeles Angels? That's A.J., his teammates and various commentators said. Not everybody would have run that one out, but he's a competitor.
Well, turns out, even A.J. wouldn't have, sometimes. On Wednesday, Pierzynski's Chicago White Sox were playing the Kansas City Royals. With one out and runners on second and third in the fifth inning, leading 4-0, Pierzynski swung and missed at Strike 3 from Luke Hudson.
The ball whizzed past the glove of catcher Paul Bako and all the way to the backstop. Pierzynski stood and watched as Bako retrieved the ball and threw to first. Out.
Maybe his &@!# only works in the playoffs.
Previous column: The NBA's bad seed
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