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Justin Bourne’s Blog: All praise the early rounds

Fans of the Boston Bruins and fans of the Montreal Canadiens watch the game at the TD Banknorth Garden. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Fans of the Boston Bruins and fans of the Montreal Canadiens watch the game at the TD Banknorth Garden. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Fans who keep one foot on the NHL bandwagon, hop on.

Round 1 is upon us.

In my past two seasons as a player, I’ve played in six playoff rounds. The most exciting, intense and demanding ones came in the opening round.

Playoffs start like a car accident. It’s out of control; anything can happen. Then all of a sudden it’s over and everything goes silent, except for that long horn at the end. 

And you’re left wondering, what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks just happened?

By the time I got to the third round last season, I was playing with a separated sternoclavicular joint (get out your medical textbook) and what was basically a bad shoulder. I was 10 pounds below my normal playing weight, pale and sported a beard that made girls throw up a tiny bit in their mouths.

Without fail, at season’s end I would emerge from the playoffs looking like some castaway who floated home on a coconut raft. It takes a heaping mental effort to get up to the necessary level of nightly intensity, so after a few rounds of beatings and bus trips, it’s tough to be the player you want to be.

And as a fan, I feel the same way about the Stanley Cup playoffs. I get so into the early rounds and watch so many games that, by the end (I think the season ends in August now), I’m pretty much indifferent. When you think about NHL playoffs, hasn’t the most fun always been those early rounds?

Oh, those rivalries. Boston-Montreal. This is the 32nd time they’ve met in the playoffs and their last game was vicious. Watching Zdeno Chara throw windmills at Mike Komisarek, I felt like somebody had finally pissed off Lenny from Of Mice And Men. I’d let Chuck Liddell punch me in the throat if it meant I could go to one of those games at the Bell Centre.

The Capital-Rangers matchup brings Alex Ovechkin to the Big Apple and puts Sean Avery in the playoffs. Networks are going to be tripping over themselves to cover the fiasco at Madison Square Garden.

The Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin-equipped Pens play the Flyers, a team with six 20-plus goal-scorers. And everybody’s first-round fresh? Yes, please.

The first round means the decline in productivity of every hockey fan who owns a television. Four games a night; it’s like they served the Super Bowl, buffet style.

By the third round, we’re down to four teams, a mere one game a night. There isn’t a hockey fan who shouldn’t be a little bummed about that. SportsCentre shows fewer highlights and adds more interviews. There’s less to talk about. The sensory overload that was the first round disappears and life gets so…normal.

The sheer quantity of passionate hockey games night in, night out in the first round raises the entertainment value to its yearly peak. 

Following these 16 teams’ epic quest is like watching Lord of the Rings: it’s one chaotic thing after the next; the odds of succeeding look thinner all the time and they both take forever to reach the end. But to get to the fires of Mordor (OK, dropping the analogy) – aka, to get to the final – is a journey unlike any other. The NBA isn't as physical; the NFL playoffs are four games total; and at the peak of the biggest moments, in the biggest games in baseball, 95 percent of the team can be seen eating sunflower seeds. The Stanley Cup is clearly the hardest trophy to win.

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But by the time teams limp into the later rounds they’re an injured, beleaguered sack of mentally fatigued warriors. It’s rarely a fair representation of what kind of team they are. The playoffs are an endurance test.

But Round 1 is a sprint. Actually, it’s wind sprints, where the competitors periodically get punched in the face.

So on Wednesday, the hockey world explodes. Eight finely tuned teams bring their highest levels of aggression, mental focus and passion to the rink and take their shot at immortality.

Teams that try to pace themselves get slaughtered off the hop and all the analysts get to start pointing fingers. These days, NHL fans are abuzz with the volume of information to process, gamblers’ accounts fluctuate like the Dow and Don Cherry’s head nearly explodes.

Every year I’m sad when this part ends. Why? Because that means I have to start eating dinner at the table again. When it’s only one game, you can have dinner and still catch the game. There’s no excuse for the pizza box/couch combo.

There’s nothing better than getting a plate set, a drink handy (coke in a glass with ice) and starting the nightly double-header – complete with highlights of the other two series.

It’s not that I’m trashing the later rounds; I’m praising the early ones. This is the hockey smorgasbord I’ve been waiting for. This is where true hockey fans point to justify their obsession.

So let’s do it. Let’s stock up on chips, ice cream and popcorn (Orville Redenbacher’s buttery salt and cracked pepper). 

We’ve reached the pinnacle. Join me, won’t you?

Enjoy Round 1 folks.

Justin Bourne plays for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four cups with the Islanders. He will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com.

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