The long, sometimes excruciating, often thrilling, regular season is done. After 1,230 games, things now get real for 16 deserving teams, the time has come to rise and live the hockey life of which many dream but few experience.
To those who say the regular season is meaningless – Hogwash! The regular season actually means quite a lot when you understand it is the proving ground for inclusion in the exclusive postseason party. But now, the players get to play for what they have dreamed about since they first laced on skates.
Now, the Stanley Cup is on the line.
Now things are different. Because, make no mistake, playoff hockey is different by its very nature. It looks different, it feels different, it sounds different and, yes, it even tastes different.
The differences range from the obvious to the subtle, some not even coming into focus until after living through the crucible that has given definition -- positive or negative -- to the greatest of hockey careers.
For those new to the postseason scene -- welcome to the club and enjoy the show. Here are a few tips on ways to deal with how the game will change as we head from early April's sprint to the regular-season finish line to the long, sustained grind of the postseason.
Put away your watch -- Forget about making plans for after the game. You might have to break them as often as not. Unlike the regular season, there's no way to know when a particular game might end, as playoff hockey sees the five-minute OT period and the shootout go into hibernation. Old-school, sudden-death, 5-on-5 hockey rules the day in the spring and games go until there is winner -- be it four extra minutes or four full overtime periods. Embrace this unpredictability; it may well become your friend before the Stanley Cup ride is over.
Put away the foil -- Say goodbye to the spectacle fights that made so much news back in February when GMs acted decisively to wipe this scourge out of the game through rules enforcement. Higher stakes have been doing the same things each spring when the playoffs start. There's no gratuitous fighting in the playoffs for a number of reasons. Perhaps the biggest is that no one has the energy to waste on such foolishness. That doesn't mean you want see the gloves dropped in true fits of pique, in battles over five inches of ice in front of the net: Mr. Iginla meet Mr. Lecavalier.
Put away the razor -- Let's put it this way, the hockey players' tradition of growing playoff beards -- a tradition started by the Islanders in the early 80s -- may be quite endearing, but it is also quite scary at times. There are some young men -- and aptly named grizzled veterans -- in this League who can grow some serious facial hair in a 60-day span. Anybody happen to see the barbed wire Dan Cleary sported last June? Grizzly Adams had nothing on the pride of Newfoundland.
Say goodbye to old friends -- Just because a player enjoyed a lot of playing time in the regular season, doesn't necessarily mean he will enjoy the same come the playoffs. Colton Orr played in all but eight regular-season games for the Rangers last season. Yet he saw just two games of playoff action in two rounds and played less than five minutes in each appearance. Big Georges Laraque was a staple with the Penguins during the regular season after being obtained at last season's trade deadline. Come May, he was lucky to see six minutes a game in Pittsburgh's march to the Final.
Say hello to new friends -- While some players see their profile dim in the playoff crucible, others find it as the unlikeliest of times to introduce themselves to the world. When Anaheim won the Cup two years ago, nobody other than the residents of Stewart Valley, Sask., and coach Randy Caryle, knew who Travis Moen was. By the time the Ducks were champions, Moen was an indispensible part of the process. Last season, youngster Darren Helm played in just seven regular-season games for the Red Wings. Yet he played in 18 postseason contests that spring, scoring two goals along the way.
Pay attention -- Playoff hockey is not a social event. Trust us, there is precious little time for idle chitchat. They say "the devil is in the details," but so, too, is the Stanley Cup in the details. Talent alone does not win hockey's biggest prize -- which explains why so many Presidents' Trophy winners have failed in their quest during the past 20 years -- but rather it is talent applied in the most disciplined manner. The Stanley Cup is won in the faceoff circle, in puck battles along the corner and position battles in front of the net. Those one-on-one battles demand your full attention, not the inane chattering coming from the person to your right or left.
Make apologies now -- During the playoffs, some teams sequester their players in hotels on the night before home playoff games. We don't suggest you go that far, but be prepared to upset some people with your playoff-related behavior. You'll be tired from the overtime games and ensuing lack of sleep, you'll be cranky from the heartbreaking losses, you'll be forgetful of others as you ponder what will come next for your team. And, finally, you will be unapproachable on the nights your team plays. It won't always be pleasant for those around you, but hopefully they'll understand. But, like we said, apologies -- and maybe gifts -- will help along the process.
Clear the communication lines -- Playoff success is all about players communicating on the ice. For those who watch, communication with other spectators is important as well. The ups and downs of a playoff run can be a lonely -- and somewhat emptier -- ride if endured alone. You have to celebrate the highs and commiserate about the lows with your fellow fanatics to fully appreciate the majesty that is the postseason. So, make sure the phone is charged, call-waiting is functioning and the answering machine is cleaned off. You might also want to sort out your e-mail inbox so you can find the playoff-related missives without too much effort. Finally, make sure you have all the forums, message boards and blogs you need -- as well as NHL.com -- properly bookmarked.
Find the Kleenex -- It's OK to admit it; the Stanley Cup Playoffs will make you cry. It remains to be seen whether they will be tears of joy or tears of sorrow, but there will be tears. There's always a moment, if not several, during the march to the Stanley Cup presentation that will make even the most hardened hockey player get a little misty eyed -- remember when Joe Sakic handed the Cup to Ray Bourque to end the defenseman's two-decade quest for the Holy Grail -- so it's all right if you get a little chocked up, too. You can always blame it on allergies.
Have fun -- The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a long and grueling march into June. Usually, there are more lows than highs on the road to greatness, producing times that can certainly try a fan's soul. But that angst is part of the allure of living every shift along with your hockey heroes. Despite the pressure, the players find a way to have fun in the postseason, feeling at their most alive despite being at their physical breaking point. You should find a way to smile, too. After all, in the blink of an eye, the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be finished. It wouldn't do not to have some fun with it before the playoffs become nothing more than prime real estate in the memory bank.