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Playoff Hockey On Madison Street

by Van Oler / Chicago Blackhawks
Former NFL coach Jim Mora gained lasting notoriety and, eventually, Coors Light royalties with his astonished response to a reporter’s question during a post-game news conference (for a reminder, go here).

Mora’s reaction has been the same as Blackhawks fans during eight of this decade’s nine seasons. Only in 2002 did the Blackhawks extend their year to the latter half of April, and even then it was a quick five-game series which the St. Louis Blues won easily. The Hawks scored just five goals in five games and were shut out three times, twice at home.

The Blackhawks have not won a playoff game, or even scored a postseason goal, in the United Center since 1997. A team that once made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 28 consecutive seasons has now gone more than a decade without even scoring a playoff goal in front of the hometown fans.

Fortunately, our long urban nightmare is about to come to an end.

The Blackhawks are in the playoffs, and (hopefully) we can look forward to a few goals and victories in front of the hometown fans. This, maybe, will be the first step toward Chicago re-establishing itself as an annual host for playoff hockey, and none too soon.

With the exception of the 1920s, when the NHL only played three seasons, this decade may prove to be the leanest for playoff hockey in team history.

As much as we hate Detroit, the Wings have been far less of a playoff nemesis than the Montreal Canadiens. Two of the three Stanley Cups the Blackhawks have won came at the expense of the Red Wings, whom the Blackhawks defeated in the finals in 1934 and 1961.

The blue, blanc, et rouge is another story; the Hawks and Habs have met five times in the Stanley Cup finals, and Montreal has won all five series. Thus, the perfect postseason for the Blackhawks would be to defeat Detroit in the Western Conference Finals and then beat Montreal in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The NHL has always been the most generous of major leagues when it comes to extending playoff invitations. Slightly over half of the league’s teams make the Stanley Cup tournament (16 of 30), and that is actually the most restrictive the NHL has ever been. The current system works well: it encourages interest right up to the last day of the regular season and the symmetry of 16 teams is elegant: there are no play-in games, bye weeks, mini-rounds, or loser’s brackets. Four rounds, each a best-of-seven. The objective is as simple as it is difficult: win 16 games before anyone else does.

Groucho Marx once said he’d never join a club that would accept him as a member. Well, he wouldn’t have been flattered by an invitation to the NHL playoffs during the early 1980s because virtually everyone received one, regardless of how poorly they may have played during the season. Following the 1967 expansion, the playoff pool expanded more quickly than did the league itself, until it reached a point of maximum madness in 1980 when 16 of 21 NHL teams qualified.

The Edmonton Oilers made the playoffs in their first year in the NHL despite a regular season record of 28-39-13. Had they known it was that easy to make the playoffs in the NHL, they would probably have agitated to join the league sooner than they did!

It’s no longer quite that simple to make the postseason, as Blackhawk fans have discovered. It is thus important to enjoy each and every playoff game, because there is simply no guarantee that there will be any the following year.
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