The NHL is doing well right now, and I’m confused and scared.
This is mostly new ground for me. As long-time readers know, I never hesitate to criticize the NHL and point out product flaws when they become apparent. Critics would say I complain about the NHL all the time. I would answer that I only criticize when it is really deserved, which is to say basically all the time.
But not now, because the 2022 qualifiers have been good.
Like, really good. So everything is fine. And I find that deeply destabilizing.
The first round delivered seven very good series out of eight, five of which went the full seven games, which is almost unheard of. We had one team come back from 3-1 in the series, and two more came from 3-2. We were teased with what could have been an epic upset in the Washington/Florida series. The Leafs and Lightning were great theater and produced the result most of you seemed to be looking for. And even the lone sweep served its purpose, with the Avalanche eliminating the Predators with the kind of dominating hitting that clearly established a favorite for the rounds to come.
The inning ended with a wild weekend, one that served three Game 7s on a Saturday night (one shy of the record), then two more on Sunday that both went to overtime. It was the first time in 25 years that we had two Game 7 overtimes on the same day, and those two ended with a team’s biggest offensive star scoring the game-winning goal.
Oh, and this whole round happened with a perfectly constructed schedule, which saw each series take place alternately with no breaks or back-to-backs. The league even seemed to realize that it could stagger start times, meaning there was almost always playoff hockey when you wanted it.
It would have been impossible for the second round to equal the first, but then…well, it almost does, doesn’t it? We had another sweep, but although the Lightning and Panthers rematch was a bit of a mess, it was still a fascinating story to watch the little brother spend the year bulking up just to get hit yet again. sand in the face. The Blues gave the Avalanche everything they could handle, including a Game 5 victory that was perhaps the most dramatic of the playoffs so far. Rangers and Hurricanes go to Game 7 tonight, and the series is already close to a classic, with Carolina’s home/road splits hitting territory never seen.
And of course, the big one: after 31 years, we finally had a Battle of Alberta. Then the action kind of lived up to the hype, if not more. This opener will live in infamy, and for once it will be the right kind.
It’s been a good month for hockey, and pretty much everything has been fantastic. We had a lot of goals, continuing a regular season trend. There were epic comebacks, enough for us to get used to thinking that a two or even three goal lead wasn’t an insurmountable deficit. There was enough bad blood to keep everything spicy, but nothing that went so far that it weighed on a series. For once, it felt like everything that could be fun in the NHL had fallen into place.
Look at all this. I’m pretty sure that’s the most words I’ve ever uttered about the NHL without bragging about how much I hated something. What’s happening to me? Have I mellowed in my old age? Was I secretly hired as the league’s public relations manager? There must be something I can complain about.
Uh…those CGI ads on the ice are a little weird, I guess.
Yeah, I can’t do it. Or rather, I can do it, but I don’t want to, because it wouldn’t be deserved. It would feel forced. I would play a character, waving my cane to the world beyond my porch just because that’s my comfort zone. It would seem cheap.
Last month hasn’t been perfect, but really, what’s your big complaint? We could have done a little more overtime, I guess. The first few days of Round 1 had a few too many blowouts. There was no real Cinderella story like we’re used to, though those were probably overdone anyway. And Sidney Crosby’s injury has somewhat spoiled this Rangers return.
Really, the only obvious problem of the last few weeks is that the Alberta battle only lasted five games instead of what it should have lasted, which was 27 games. We can all agree on that one. And yes, part of the reason the streak was cut short was because the Flames had a canceled goal that maybe should have counted. I think Calgary got screwed, although not everyone did, and you can’t say a call costs you a series if you lose in five games. Still, I think Blake Coleman’s goal should have counted. Even in an ideal year, we cannot escape the controversy over mandatory arbitration.
But even there, we’re doing pretty well. Typically, at this point, we would have had half a dozen major controversies, and everyone would be clamoring for new rules, scrutiny, and whatever. This year has certainly seen a few missed calls, and a few others that were fine but the circuits had to scream for anyway. But for the most part, we had dodged every real obstacle until Coleman’s kick. Of course, Leaf fans are still mad at the scoreless interference, and Blues fans think Nazem Kadri directed their goaltender, and there was that weird helmet thing that cost the Penguins. We had the usual arguments over goalkeeper interference, and the offside review still exists. But we haven’t seen any real debacles, or single-handed calls that decided a streak like the one we had with the Knights and Sharks a few years ago. The refs even called penalties for a while in the first round, which everyone said they wanted, only to stop later in the round, which everyone actually wants.
When even the officiant only makes you angry instead of apoplectic, it was a good playoff.
Is this the part where I reluctantly have to give credit to the league for making it all possible? Maybe, but I’m not there yet. Much like the increase in regular season scores that no one could quite explain, I’m not sure what we’re seeing is the result of real NHL action. I’ll give them credit for the planning, and maybe they’ve had a word with the refs to be careful from time to time. But a lot of that just feels like luck, or maybe the lack of bad luck, as opposed to anything the NHL wanted to put in place.
If so, that’s fine. We can take that. Hockey is the best sport in the world when it works, and right now it works. If it’s just a happy accident, well, let’s focus on the happy one.
And here’s the part that seems impossible, but isn’t: there’s a chance that everything could be even better. We have Game 7 to watch tonight, with a rested Lightning squad waiting in the wings. We haven’t seen an NHL hat-trick since the Islanders of the 1980s; it’s something that even Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers and Mario Lemieux’s Penguins have never achieved. But we got to see it this year, as the Lightning are a mini-dynasty that seems locked into scratching this “mini” game. Either we’ll see them in a rematch of last year’s meeting with the Hurricanes, or we’ll see a battle of the two best goalkeepers in the world against Rangers. Either should be fantastic.
But that’s not even the main event. It comes out West, where we get Connor McDavid vs. Nathan MacKinnon in the best one-on-one battle between superstar forwards we’ve seen so late in the playoffs since…when? Gretzky and Lemieux never met in the playoffs, Lemieux and Mark Messier only met in the second round, and neither did Alex Ovechkin and Crosby. You might have to go back to the Wings and Avs, or maybe even those Oiler and Islander finals. And it’s not just a meeting between two big names on paper, as McDavid has gone into a veritable supernova over the past few weeks, while MacKinnon has looked unstoppable on several occasions. Mix in an injured Leon Draisaitl still racking up points, Cale Makar evoking highlights, plenty of supporting talent and shaky goalkeepers, and this streak should be amazing.
So let’s wrap up this fanboy screed spouting the only place we could: what could go wrong?
Listen, we all think about it. So how does this all end badly? Are we getting that big call tonight, or are they saving it for the finale? Will any of these superstars get hurt, depriving us of a real showdown? Is someone going to do something stupid that deserves a suspension that they won’t get because it’s the playoffs, and we’ll all fight about it for a week? Will the hockey gods pull the rug out from under a high-scoring season and deliver a bunch of cautious 3-0 misses?
Maybe. It could be all of those things, and we’re weeks away from reminiscing about the good old days of enjoying this post-season. It’s the NHL — silly stuff happens, often at the worst possible time.
But it hasn’t happened yet. So far, the 2022 playoffs have been about as close as we could imagine. We don’t know how long this will last, but we might as well enjoy it while we can.
(Photo: Sergei Belsky/USA Today)