A great playoff sport, hockey goes unchecked

Phil Jackman

May 01, 1991|By Phil Jackman

Whenever there's a decent Super Bowl, every decade or so, somebody stands up in Congress and suggests we celebrate with a (paid) national holiday.

Look at the World Series the last couple of years: blowouts. And most of the league championship series have been the same.

As far as the NBA playoffs are concerned, the first round is generally a guided tour through wipeout city, and play in the second round is often just as one-sided.

And then there's hockey.

For a sport that has been around since the Big War and year-in and year-out produces absolutely sensational competition in the postseason, it's surprising the public doesn't give it closer inspection.

Granted, it's pretty tough to sustain fervor over the 80-game campaign designed primarily to determine seedings for the Stanley Cup playoffs. But, come April, how can so many all but yawn at constantly irresistible story lines?

For example, the Boston Bruins holding off the Montreal Canadiens in the last minute of the seventh and deciding game to capture the Adams Division title Monday night, 2-1.

Or Edmonton squeezing by the Los Angeles Kings in six games, two of them double overtimes, two more overtime with the goal differential ending up as one (21-20) in the Oilers' favor.

While Boston is going against Pittsburgh in the Wales Conference final beginning tonight (7:30, HTS), Edmonton draws Minnesota with the Campbell Conference crown on the line commencing tomorrow. Talk about a story.

The North Stars, thought to be a lame-duck franchise all season and unable to average 8,000 fans, were only an even bet to salvage one game in their opening series with Chicago. After all, the Blackhawks had been the NHL's best during the season.

No sooner did the Hawks fall in six games in a shocker when it was surmised the St. Louis Blues, the second best team during (( the regular season, surely would obliterate Minny. They too fell in six. And that's only this year.

History teaches us that it was back when Babe Ruth was making a name for himself as a pitcher that the Brothers Patrick, Frank and Lester, founders of the Pacific Coast Hockey League, instituted the playoff system.

Frank explained, "What we need is a second chance for teams that for whatever reason have fallen too far behind to make a race of it. It's not right, for instance, that a team strong enough to make a challenge should be ruled out of contention due to early-season injuries."

Money, rest assured, was not a factor back then. Championships meant something.

Toronto beat Vancouver, three games to two, the first year (1918) and, by the next year, things that inevitably lead to legend started cropping up regularly. The 1918-19 championship pitting Montreal and Seattle was called off after five games due to a flu epidemic. One game was declared no contest when the teams && couldn't score through regulation and two overtimes and the ice was literally gone.

The PCHL had postseason play to itself until 1927 when the NHL appropriated the idea.

It's no doubt fitting that Lester Patrick, one of the originators of playoff hockey, should, 10 years after putting his skates away, came out of the stands to serve as goalie in the New York Rangers' Cup victory of 1928.

Every spring since, it seems, the wild, the wacky, the wonderful and the improbable have become almost commonplace once the puck was dropped.

Back in the days of the Canadian and American Division play, then seven-team and six-team NHL setups, it was quite common for a club to cash in on the Patrick's "second chance" scheme.

The Blackhawks of 1938 were no more than the sixth-best team with their weak 14-25-9 record when they rose up and smit the opposition. Toronto won from third place in 1944-45, 1963-64 and 1966-67 and that's the only time the Leafs seemed to come through, when not a whole lot was expected of them.

The Montreal-Detroit Red Wing meetings of the '50s matched teams the equal of their baseball counterpart Yankees and Dodgers. There have been dynasties played out, the Canadiens, New York Islanders and Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers of recent vintage, and others that died aborning.

A great game during the regular season, hockey actually outdoes itself come playoff time.

Even with a team like the Washington Capitals, an outfit that has yet to realize much beyond moderate success in Cup play, fans have their own playoff moment to savor. Who can forget the night the Caps battled the Islanders into a record fourth overtime in Game 7? Making the loss a little easier to take was the fact it was 2 o'clock Easter Sunday morning and both winners and losers wanted out of there.

There are stories remaining in this Tale of Four Cities and they're worth checking out.

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