A berth in the Stanley Cup final is on the line as Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins battle Cam Ward and the Hurricanes. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Some people will argue the NHL playoffs become less intriguing as the tournament moves toward its conclusion.
That’s not how I see it. I think the drama of the post-season ratchets higher with every skated stride, slapped shot and supernatural save.
Now, it’s true the pomp and happenstance of the playoffs is greater in number in the opening two rounds. More teams equal more casual fan interest and more casual fan interest equals more opportunity to razz and debate among a wider circle of friends.
However, if you’re really paying attention to the drama of what’s at stake for individual players and teams, you get rewarded in a way that the conference quarter-and-semifinals simply cannot match.
To see what I’m getting at, look at all four remaining playoff teams.
In Carolina, the Hurricanes have a sizeable group of players (including Tuomo Ruutu, Joe Corvo, Sergei Samsonov, Patrick Eaves and Jussi Jokinen) who were given up on by at least one of their former teams and who weren’t part of the Canes’ Stanley Cup victory in 2006.
Think those guys aren’t aching to gain membership in the game’s most exclusive of clubs? Think they don’t recognize how close they may have been to being squeezed out of the NHL – the way veterans such as Yanic Perreault, Glen Murray, Geoff Sanderson and Aaron Miller were this year – and never getting this chance in the first place?
The situation in Chicago is nearly the opposite of the one in Carolina, yet the pressure to produce exists for them just the same. For though the Blackhawks have a talented crew composed mostly of playoff first-timers – and the presumption is they’ll be post-season mainstays for the next decade or so – it is a near-certainty that, through trades, injuries and other developments, at least one or two current members may never have this good a shot at a Cup for the remainder of their careers.
Most of the defending-champion Red Wings have lived the NHL dream to its most pleasant conclusion, but they also have a few greybeards (Chris Chelios, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby) who almost assuredly will not have another opportunity like this one, as well as some young bucks who could go Cup-less thanks to the turnaround of Detroit’s four other Central Division opponents.
Finally, look at the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are very familiar with what it feels like to be in the thick of the pack during a championship race, only to fall short in the final patch of road. If they repeat as Eastern Conference champs and again lose out in the Cup final, what does that say about the core GM Ray Shero has committed to – and what changes get made to that roster come summer?
Regardless of the answer to that or any other of the above questions, it’s easy to see why, as some players admit privately, it is easier to lose in the first or second round than it is in the conference and Cup finals.
In the first round - and in spite of clichéd protestations to the contrary - some players and teams really are just happy to be part of the party.
Same goes for the second round; developing teams (like, say, the Washington Capitals) are thrilled enough by a series win and often have to learn the hard way how bad a bad bounce or flat showing truly can be.
Only when the third round begins do the repercussions of wins and losses – not just on the scoreboard, but in faceoff circles, the corners of the rink and virtually every facet of the game – really kick in.
Sure, the further into May and June an NHL team plays, the shorter that team’s off-season calendar actually is.
But ask NHLers who’ve made it as far as a player can without winning it all and they’ll tell you a shorter summer feels months longer when you don’t have ticker-tape flurries and a silver chalice to justify the thousands of small sacrifices it took just to get to that point.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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