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Drop the Puck Already!

The Everyfan's Guide to Watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

The Stanley Cup is the most recognizable trophy in North American sports-and is right up there in Europe, too (Finland, Russia, Sweden, Slovenia, Slovakia, to name a few), since every winning player gets a day with the Cup during the immediately following summer. There is one and only one Stanley Cup trophy. It weighs 35 pounds but seems like a feather to the exhausted, wildebeest-bearded team captain who gets to hold the Cup overhead and skate a victory lap (see the below video for proof).

Video: Because it's the Cup

About that Cup hoisting…The late Hockey Hall of Famer and Red Wings legend Ted Lindsay (RIP 2019) was the first player to hoist the Cup in 1950 and carry it around the rink to share with the crazy-happy fans. The Detroit captain was Sid Abel, but Lindsay had the idea and, well, skated with it. Fitting, because Lindsay and his Wings teammates won three more titles that decade, plus Lindsay is widely credited as the driving force behind the NHL Players Association.

Oh, Sid Abel, was another Hall of Famer who played on the same line with Lindsay. The other skater to form that particular three-player front-line formation that hockey coaches strategically put out on the ice with two back-end defenseman and goalie? NHL immortal Gordie Howe or "Mr. Hockey," who played the most NHL games in history over 26 seasons.

Other major pro sports leagues issue a replica trophy for each title. The replica is dandy, no doubt-Tiffany makes the NFL trophy-but a replica is not the original Cup that is handed from hockey greats to the next generations of hockey greats. Not the same original Cup with which Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin did a keg stand at the Georgetown Waterfront in D.C. last June.

And when we get to the final round or championship series, it's the Stanley Cup Final. Not plural. There is one Final series each June and one Cup. Period.

HOME ICE-KEEPING AND THE PLAYOFFS BRACKET

Sixteen of the League's 31 teams-soon to be 32!-qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Two division winners from each of the Eastern and Western conferences (that's 4 total) get home-ice advantage for the first round of the postseason. Those top finishers will play a best-of-seven series with the two respective wild-card teams from each conference (we're up to 8 teams total). It's possible one division in a conference can advance five teams to the playoffs and the other conference sends three.

The other eight teams that qualify (making 16 total) are the second- and third-place finishers in each division. Those 2-3 teams play each other within division and the second-place team gets home-ice advantage.

Whew! Lots of qualifying the qualifiers. Bottom line: Win your division (Tampa Bay, defending champs Washington, Calgary and Nashville), you play the supposedly weaker wild-card teams in your conference. Tampa Bay with League-leading scorer Nikita Kucherov (view the video below) and overall best regular-season record, starts with Columbus, and owns home-ice advantage. The other 1 vs. 4 first round series: Washington vs. Carolina, Calgary vs. Colorado and Nashville vs. Dallas.

Video: Kucherov scores 100th point on a feed from Johnson

One hitch: Maybe those wild-card teams are better than their regular-season showing because they were disrupted by injuries to key players or got hot late in the season or both.

"Every team is a hard out," says Dave Tippett, NHL Seattle's one-man hockey operation department and former coach of both Dallas and Arizona playoff teams. "The lower seed might have a goalie who plays unbelievable."

The second-third place matchups feature even more parity. One 2-3 matchup is San Jose vs. 2018 Western Conference champs Vegas. Another 2-3 series features an Original Six matchup of Toronto vs. Boston. The other 2-3 series: New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh and Winnipeg vs. St. Louis. Check out the entire TV schedule here.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are formed into a bracket, a la college basketball's March Madness. The winners of the pair of series in each division play each other in Round 2. The third round is the conference finals, which produces the two clubs that play for the Stanley Cup.

PLAYOFF HOCKEY = OVERTIME HOCKEY

Ask any NHL expert about why Stanley Cup Playoffs represent the best postseason in sports and "overtime" is likely uttered in the first or second sentence of the answer.

"There is no more intense playoff season," says Sam Flood, Executive Producer & President, Production at NBC Sports and its cable NBC Sports Network or NBCSN. "Overtime hockey is sudden joy or death."

During the regular season, teams play a three-on-three five-minute overtime that follows with a shootout if there isn't any scoring in OT. When the Stanley Cup is on the line, overtime goes until someone scores or, as Flood advises, "you watch to see who is going to make a mistake."

 

NHL Seattle's Dave Tippett knows way too much about the sudden joy or death of overtime hockey in April, May and June. As a Hartford Whalers player in 1986, he was on the losing end of an overtime deciding Game 7 goal that advanced the opponent Montreal Canadiens.

As an NHL head coach, Tippett has been involved in three of the 10 longest games in NHL history (see countdown to the right)(see countdown below story). He watched his Dallas Stars goalie, Marty Turco, play three perfect overtime periods in each of those three marathon games, only to then lose two games in the fourth overtime. Tippett prefers to think fondly of the game his Stars won in 2008 against the San Jose Sharks when Brandon Morrow scored on a powerplay nine minutes into the fourth OT (see video below).

Video: Brenden Morrow scores in 4th OT period

"It was the first penalty called since regulation," says Tippett.

Going longer than one overtime is enough to wreak havoc on players' energy, coaches' strategies and fans' nerves: "It is past a whole food cycle," says Flood. "Players are grabbing pizza or whatever they can get to get some energy back."

"You know players are running on fumes," says Tippett. "The pace is way different [slower] in the fifth and sixth overtimes."

YOUNG STARS AND TEAMS TO WATCH, BEST CROWD NOISE AND SMART THINGS TO SAY

Ok, Seattle NHL fans-let's get our heads in the game for when the first 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff pucks drop April 13.

We consult former NHL goalie and current NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes for his take.

"For young stars [under 23], oh man, there are so many," says Weekes, whose parents emigrated from Barbados and raised Weekes in the hockey hotbed of Toronto. "There's Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders [and formerly of the Seattle Thunderbirds mind you], Jake Guentzel in Pittsburgh, I like the Tampa's young goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy. Toronto has a bevy of young stars… Auston Matthews [the American wonder who grew up in Arizona] and the defenseman Morgan Rielly, who I think is going to win the Norris [Trophy, for the NHL's best defenseman] this season. In the West, Calgary has young studs like Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk."

As a player, Weekes says he thinks the 1992 crowds in Carolina were the noisiest and most supportive he heard as a home-ice goalie. This postseason, he touts Nashville and Vegas as the two fan bases and arenas as the "loudest and most fun inside and out."

NHL Seattle fans, we take that as a challenge.

"Nashville is like a [college] basketball barn," says Sam Flood, the NBC Sports chief. "They have the chants, they go after the goalies and have the catfish tradition."

Uh, catfish? Long story, but basically fans throw a catfish on the ice before games as a good luck wish. The catfish can be store-bought or maybe fished from the local Cumberland River. How did this start? Because Red Wings fans threw octopi on the Detroit rink as the first seafood appetizer of good luck-and Nashville's early days of expansion included Red Wings fans who had retired down South. Uh, octopi? Another long story, gotta go.

Dave Tippett, who certainly endorses that Seattle's New Arena at Seattle Center becomes the noisiest postseason in 2022, adds the Winnipeg Jets' arena to the noisy list: "As a coach and player, they let you know you are the enemy."

For his part, Kevin Weekes predicts the 2019 Stanley Cup will be a repeat matchup of the Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals and star Alex Ovechkin, who just notched his eighth 50-goal season (see highlight below). "Oh, there's Ovi, the great number 8 who just scored 50 goals in the regular season for the eighth time," you can casually remark to friends and loved ones while watching the playoffs on NBC and NBCSN.

Video: Ovechkin scores his 50th goal of the season

Flood agrees Vegas looks strong, especially with the trade deadline acquisition of Mark Stone (who then "signed a long-term contract so Seattle fans will see a lot of him").

Weekes warns that the Dallas Stars could be a "disrupter" in the Western Conference playoffs and the Boston Bruins might be the team to upend the Caps in the Eastern Conference. OK, Kev, we will check back with you in June.

Here's one more very smart thing you can say while watching the playoffs, courtesy of NBC's Flood. This is pure gold to impress all levels of hockey fans, even the diehards still skating in adult leagues beyond their ideal playing days and, ahem, weights: "This is from Herb Brooks, the gold-medal winning Olympics coach," said Flood. "He said never give up a goal in the first five minutes or the last five minutes. Goals tend to come in twos. Either the scoring team is too high and lets up, allowing the other team to score. Or the scored-on team is wondering what just happened and gets scored on again trying to figure it out. Goals scored in twos is a highly underrated stat and as a fan it will make you look like a genius."

BIRTH OF THE PLAYOFF BEARDS

Today's athletes sport many a beard, from the NBA to the NFL to the MLB. But let's get this straight (curly too): The beards thing started with the National Hockey League and, specifically, as a superstition of not shaving or even trimming during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, thank you very much.

The tradition started with the New York Islanders during the 1980s, lore has it by the gritty (of course!) Butch Goring. While the history is, ahem, a bit fuzzy, there is no doubting the Cup success of those Islanders with the unkempt facial hair. They hoisted Lord Stanley four straight Junes from 1980 through 1983, winning 19 consecutive playoff series before finally losing one in the 1984 postseason.

Playoff beards are so popular that many male fans skip the razors themselves as their teams keep winning. Female fans join in with fake beards, often in team colors. Fan blogs compare the early-round looks with the scraggly side of the Stanley Cup Final. And postseason beards are tradition in most North American professional hockey leagues along the college ranks and even high school leagues. Speaking of high schoolers, there are some NHL players who struggle to grow much facial hair, especially in younger years.

Marc-Andre Fleury, who starred and practically stood on his head for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights last postseason, made the Can't Grow a Beard lists during his Pittsburgh days but managed a bit of a goatee look with Vegas. Make fun all you might want, but VGK fans are happy with the incredible and, yes, hair-raising saves he made in the Western Conference Final last year (see below video) no matter the volume of the Fleury beard.

Video: Marc-Andre Fleury makes two saves on Scheifele

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