Leave it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for an instant classic to incur a short shelf life because another epic encounter occurs within 24 hours. No wonder the Blackhawks, who surged during the second half of the regular season, desperately wanted to qualify for the postseason.
They too might have been a contender, because it's slippery out there!
Last Tuesday night, the San Jose Sharks trailed the visiting Vegas Golden Knights, 3-0, midway in the third period of their Game 7. Then Cody Eakin cross-checked Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, who tumbled to the ice after a subsequent jolt from Paul Statsny. Eakin drew a five-minute major, and the Sharks feasted on the power play for four goals.
Naturally, because it's hockey in April, Vegas tied it, 4-4, with 47 seconds remaining in regulation. But deep into the first overtime, the Sharks won, 5-4, for their third straight victory in the series. The Shark Tank shook, the Golden Knights complained, but neutral observers promptly branded it as a game for the ages.
But the front page soon was ceded to the Carolina Hurricanes, who eliminated the defending champion Washington Capitals, 4-3, the very next evening. After falling behind, 2-0, the fleet Hurricanes found momentum, outplayed the Capitals in their building, and forged a stunning upset with a double-overtime thriller that supplanted the Sharks-Golden Knights affair as the third-longest Game 7 in National Hockey League annals.
With that, the Second Round proceeded sans all four division winners - the Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators - while all four wildcards - Carolina, the Columbus Blue Jackets, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars - advanced in an unprecedented bit of bracket-busting.
The NHL apologized to Bill Foley, Vegas' owner, about the severity of the penalty to Eakin. (Shades of last January's NFC Championship in New Orleans, where the Saints lost to the Los Angeles Rams on a non-call that also begat regrets from the league.) Meanwhile, Pavelski was unavailable for the start of the Sharks' next series against Colorado.
It is difficult to determine who is having the most fun in this egalitarian environment, but Ohio State-centric Columbus seems like a logical region to start. The Blue Jackets were thought to be sellers instead of buyers at the trade deadline, but they went all out and barely captured the last wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. As a reward, John Tortorella's Blue Jackets drew a First Round assignment against the Lightning, who rolled to 62 victories and 128 points in the regular season. Tortorella, who coached Tampa Bay to the 2004 Stanley Cup, evidently imbued the industrious Blue Jackets with his edgy ways. After falling behind, 3-0, in Game One, they suffocated the Lightning and swept the series. An absolute shocker.
The Stars were headed nowhere special except toward a three-day break for Christmas when their president, Jim Lites, upstaged Santa and eviscerated Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin in a public interview requiring deleted expletives. Lites wanted more for his money, saying his big guys were "embarrassing." To their credit, Benn and Seguin agreed. The Stars perked up in the second half, secured the first wild-card berth, and surprised Nashville in six games.
The Blackhawks were chasing Colorado for much of March, but the Avalanche finished strong with 90 points, four better than the Arizona Coyotes and six more than Chicago. The Avalanche garnered three points in a crucial weekend back-to-back with the Blackhawks. Despite having 64 goals on the injured list (Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen), the Avs won at home, 4-2, behind Goalie Philipp Grubauer, then fell, 2-1, in overtime at the United Center the next night. Colorado made quick work of favored Calgary in the First Round, four games to one.
The Hurricanes, a frisky bunch, developed a "Storm Surge" of post-victory choreographies at home. A limbo line. Slam Dunk contest. Bowling. Creative stuff and entertaining, at least to most. Not including Don Cherry, the popular analyst on Hockey Night in Canada. He mocked the Hurricanes and called them a "bunch of jerks." Taking a cue, the Carolina players soon showed up wearing "BUNCH OF JERKS" T-shirts. How can you not like the Hurricanes? Their enlivened fan base in traditional college basketball country certain does.
Jeremy Colliton, the Blackhawks' new head coach, received the game puck after his first NHL victory on Nov. 14, a 1-0 conquest over St. Louis. Within a week, the Blues changed coaches. On Jan. 1, still struggling under Craig Berube, they were in the Central Division basement, two points behind the Blackhawks with 34 points total. No NHL team had fewer, and the Blues were 18 points behind the first-place Jets. Later that week, the Blues summoned goalie Jordan Binnington from the minors. He posted a 1.89 goals against average, won 24 of 30 starts, and the Blues took the First Round in six games against Winnipeg, deemed a serious Cup possibility.
Then there are the New York Islanders. Consider the case of John Tavares, a superstar who left them to sign a formidable free agent contract to join his hometown team, the loaded Maple Leafs. But they were knocked out of the postseason, again by the Boston Bruins, leaving Canada dry, again. No Cup since 1993.
Meanwhile, the Islanders, given up for dead without their best player, brought in a new coach, Barry Trotz, who left the Capitals after directing them to their first Stanley Cup. The Islanders elevated from 80 points to 103 and yielded 196 goals, exactly 100 fewer than during their previous forlorn season. The Islanders stunned the Pittsburgh Penguins in a sweep.
The Islanders played their First Round games in Nassau Coliseum, which they called home during the second half of the regular season. But for their Second Round series against Carolina, the Islanders returned to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn because the Coliseum is booked with an equestrian show. How could this happen?
Well, in 1977, the Blackhawks wheezed into the playoffs with just 26 victories and 63 points, only to learn that Stadium dates were committed to a Led Zeppelin concert. So the Blackhawks were dispatched to play an entire best-of-three at - where else? - Nassau Coliseum against the Islanders. The Blackhawks lost two straight, the latter as the "home" team.
They were not happy, but now neither is Colliton, who admitted he is watching this postseason frenzy with "envy." Such fun it could have been.