The first StanleyCup playoff axiom is that you have to bury your chances, which, when you thinkabout it, is precisely what veteran Tampa Bay center Tim Taylor did. At theconclusion of the Lightning-Senators playoff opener in Ottawa last Friday,Taylor scooped up the puck and absconded to the dressing room, spoilingSenators winger Vaclav Varada's plan to present it to Ray Emery in honor of thegoalie's first playoff win. Once inside the Tampa Bay sanctuary, Taylor chuckedthe puck into a garbage can, later declining to identify its final restingplace but intimating that the puck had wound up somewhere it would never befound. ¬∂ Not that Emery had an axiom to grind--"I won't lose any sleep overit, but it wasn't the classiest move," he said--but in the utterlypassionate world of the NHL playoffs, you can win the game (Senators 4,Lightning 1) and have the other team do the trashing. ¬∂ "You're doingeverything you can to not make the other team happy," Taylor said of theendearing and enduring playoff ethos. "If this were the regular season ...I wouldn't have done it. But this is the playoffs. It's all about trying togain an edge on the other team, trying to piss them off."
After thelockout-induced hiatus--a pity that a dispute over how to divvy up the spoilsof a $2.1 billion business ruined the time of year when the game is distilledinto a quest for a 36-pound mug--the playoffs came roaring back, a homecomingmore profoundly welcome than even some players thought possible. "I reallymissed it," said Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier. "The intensity.The noise. You step on the ice, the crowd goes crazy. It leaves you with afeeling...." He tapped his chest.
Lecavalier'steammate Brad Richards said that "the year away made it even moremeaningful. At least for me. It seems somehow bigger." The sentiment wasechoed by winger Kirk Maltby (box, page 58) before his Detroit Red Wings splitGames 1 and 2 with the Edmonton Oilers. "It's about time," said Maltby."After that layoff, even with as much experience as we have, everyone inthis dressing room is like a kid, excited to get this going."
The firstface-offs were in Ottawa and Detroit at 7:12 p.m., although the unofficialcommencement occurred two minutes earlier when an octopus landed on the icewith a splat during The Star-Spangled Banner at the Wings' Joe Louis Arena.Nothing screams "playoffs" like a cephalopod. (The Red Wings' traditionbegan in 1952 when two fishmongers realized that the number of tentacles on anoctopus matched the number of wins then necessary to win the Stanley Cup.)Octopus-tossing is officially proscribed, but arena superintendent Al Sobotkatacitly encourages it by twirling octopuses over his head as he chugs off theice after cleaning them up. In this year's playoff innovation, some Oilers fansthrew hunks of prime Alberta beef onto the ice in response.
Two octopusesrained down that first night, equaling the number of fights that unfoldedthrough the first 12 playoff games. The sight of enforcers such as the New YorkRangers' Colton Orr and the Senators' Brian McGrattan in civvies was anotherwelcome sign of hockey's spring, the playoffs being too important to allowone-dimensional ruffians to practice their dark arts. The playoffs are left insofter hands, some of them belonging to vice presidents of marketing.
Apparently thesecond Stanley Cup playoff axiom--at least this year, amid an intensified urgeto appeal to a public jilted by the lockout--is that you can't win without aslogan. The New Jersey Devils offered a banner reading TEAM DISCIPLINEINTENSITY TRADITION, a motto as sober-minded as C-Span. The defending-champLightning tried the more upbeat BACK 2 BACK BELIEVER (that, even though coachJohn Tortorella has suggested that Tampa had won the last Cup in "the IceAge"). Ottawa, meanwhile, trotted out a REV UP THE RED campaign, acrimson-hued motif that long has been favored in Calgary and Detroit. The RedWings chose the more direct BRING IT!, presumably not referring tooctopuses.
A leaguewideslogan might have been a more prosaic Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. Aftercommissioner Gary Bettman's admonition that any referee who failed to crackdown on obstruction during the playoffs--a time when many infractions havetraditionally been overlooked--would be sent home for the summer, there were anaverage of 15.4 penalties per game through Sunday. That's 4.4 more than theaverage for the 2004 playoffs.
The refs calledpenalties often, they called them late--Philadelphia weathered three powerplays in the first overtime in its 3-2 double-OT loss to Buffalo in Game 1--andthey called them in clumps. There were 12 five-on-threes in those first 12matches. The penalty glut gave New Jersey a team-record 13 opportunities in a6-1 opening win over the Rangers (five Devils goals came with a man advantage)and accounted for five of the seven goals in the Nashville Predators' 4-3 Game1 win over the San Jose Sharks.
In Ottawa therefs' vigilance helped the heavily favored Senators score three goals--two onthe power play--in less than 3 1/2 minutes to overcome a 1-0 deficit in Game 1.By Sunday night, though, the resilient Lightning had evened the series at 1-1,and the specter of an upset, yet another compelling hallmark of the NHLpostseason, loomed.
These are the 2006hockey playoffs, renewed and improved: The bloom is on the rose, the goons arein the stands and, to quote the Devils, it remains the province of team,discipline, intensity and tradition. Garbage time? Hardly.
Read more about the NHL playoffs in the Playoff Blogand get analysis from Michael Farber, Allan Muir and Darren Eliot atSI.com/nhl.
Photograph by Lou Capozzola
GAME ON In Ottawa the defending champion Lightning (in white) split two games withthis year's Stanley Cup favorites, the Senators.