On Thursday night, Barry Derr was reminded in stark metaphorical terms of his place in the entertainment pecking order. Thousands had come to downtown Los Angeles to see the big matchup: Candice versus Kree on American Idol. Barry and a few dissidents had come for Kings versus Sharks, a second-round NHL playoff game. The idols were greeted by a wide red carpet outside the Nokia Theatre, where teleprompters spit out inane questions (“What’s going on down there on the red carpet?”), and entertainment correspondents wore heavy makeup. The Kings had a deejay playing “Sweet Home Alabama.” Someone had strung up balloons. “If you’re born in L.A.,” Barry said, “you gotta fight to see a hockey game.”
You could forgive Kings fans for feeling like members of an out-of-the-way cult. This is partly because their team plays at Staples Center, which is nestled in a vast entertainment complex called L.A. Live and is just steps from the Nokia Theatre. L.A. Live is a place where TV shows are filmed so they can be shown to the West Coast on tape delay. It is also a favored site of movie premieres and VIP visits. Thus, a Kings fan leaving Staples often finds himself encountering Twilight fans who have bivouacked for the premiere, or emissaries from the South Korean presidential delegation. The two groups stare at one another as in a first-contact moment on Star Trek.
The Senators and Penguins opened their second-round series Tuesday night, with Pittsburgh claiming an early series lead thanks to a 4-1 win on home ice.
The no. 1-seeded Penguins are the consensus favorites over the 7-seed Senators, but nobody would be surprised if the series turned out to be a long one. In the end, it may come down to which team can manage an edge in the key matchups.
Which key matchups, you ask, since you assume that’s what you’re supposed to do? Good question! Here are a dozen battles to watch as the series resumes on Friday night.
There’s a secret that Toronto fans aren’t supposed to talk about, but after what happened Monday night, I don’t care about anything anymore, so here it is: Heading into Game 7 against the Boston Bruins, Leafs fans were OK with losing.
Not "OK" as in we wouldn't care. Leafs fans wanted a win, were hoping for a win, and — in some cases — may even have talked ourselves into expecting a win. And we were ready for the three hours of agony we knew were coming. A Game 7 in the NHL playoffs is pure torture, and Leaf supporters were feeling that every bit as much as fans of the Bruins.
But there was an insurance policy, because the 2013 Leafs season was already a success. A team that hadn’t made the playoffs in seven seasons and was expected to miss them yet again had ended the drought. Young players who’d been written off as busts suddenly emerged. A franchise that floundered for a decade had finally found an identity. And though they were written off after falling behind three games to one in a series against a team that had spent the last few years kicking sand in their faces, the Leafs clawed back with a pair of gutsy wins to force a deciding game.
A loss would sting for a while, sure. But it couldn’t really hurt, not the way big losses are supposed to. It couldn’t leave a scar, whether it came in a blowout or sudden death or somewhere in between.
Well, what can I tell you? Some nights, you just show up in the wrong arena. Up in Boston, the Bruins came roaring back to win a Game 7 on Monday night because the Toronto Maple Leafs picked the wrong night to stop sniffing glue or something. Meanwhile, here in Washington, his team already trailing 3-0 and with all of 13 seconds elapsed in the third period, John Erskine of the Capitals surrendered a chocolate éclair of a turnover along the left boards. Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers accepted the gratuity and went sailing in to lift a backhand past Caps goalie Braden Holtby. At which point, Verizon Center became the quietest hockey arena in America. I am not kidding about this. There was more energy in the former Hartford Civic Center at ten o’clock Monday night than there was in this joint, and Pucky the Whale was livelier than the entire Washington bench. Meanwhile, on the TV, the Capitals broadcast crew ominously began using the phrase “played their hearts out this season” a lot, and opined that the Capitals defensive corps would be even stronger next year with a full training camp under their belts. All that was missing from the wake were weeping old ladies and a spray of flowers from the local Elks.
The juice went out of the place long before the 5-0 final closed the book on the first-round series and sent the Rangers along to an Original Six–a-palooza against the Bruins. Both Washington and New York looked tight and jittery at the beginning of the game, and no player more so than Holtby, who had the devil’s own time controlling rebounds and, at one point, completely lost control of the puck behind his own net. The comparison between the two goalies was striking, as we shall see. But whereas the Rangers managed to get beyond the early shakes, the Capitals never seemed to get fully organized, or entirely into the game.
The first round of the NHL playoffs isn’t over quite yet, thanks to a pair of Game 7s tonight. But since one of those games involves the Toronto Maple Leafs, I’ll be completely incapable of even basic human function all day long so we better just go ahead and do this now.
Let’s take a look back at the past two weeks of action, and hand out a few awards to the best and worst of (almost) the entire first round.
Welcome to a weekly blog post of thoughts and observations from the past few days and/or decades of NHL hockey.
The Three Stars of Comedy
Recognizing the three moments or personalities from around the league that produced the most comedic fodder for fans this week.
The third star: April Reimer and Elisha Cuthbert, for about five minutes
It sure looked like Mrs. James Reimer and Soon-To-Be-Mrs. Dion Phaneuf were exchanging death stares and eye rolls after their husbands combined to give up Boston’s overtime winner in Game 4 on Wednesday.
Tragically, it turned out not to be true, as the two confirmed via Twitter within minutes. Social media ruins everything. But we’ll always have those precious fleeting moments when we all thought we’d witnessed one of the great post-goal scowling contests of all time.
Playoff time in Toronto and Ottawa used to mean the Battle of Ontario. That was the creative nickname slapped onto the rivalry between the two teams who faced each other four years out of five from 2000 to 2004. Fans of either team don’t need to be reminded how that went: The Leafs won all four series, in increasingly cruel fashion.
This season marks the first time since 2004 that both teams are in the NHL playoffs, although this time they are not facing each other. This week, I dropped by Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place and Toronto’s Air Canada Centre to take in a pair of Game 4s.
This year’s NHL playoffs have featured plenty of sights that fans aren’t accustomed to. We have rare appearances by teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders, veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester’s long-awaited postseason debut, and the first Ottawa-Montreal matchup in 86 years.
And yet, a lot of it still feels familiar. That’s because no matter which teams are involved or how they match up, there are a few things you can count on each year. The names might change, but there are certain types of players that always seem to make an appearance. Here are the 10 players you can expect to meet every year in the NHL playoffs.
Sunday was a happy/depressing day in the happy/depressing history of the New York Islanders, a franchise that’s set to move to Brooklyn (a happy/depressing borough) in 2015. The Islanders were playing the Penguins in a first-round playoff game at Nassau Coliseum, their first postseason appearance in Uniondale since 2007. I thought I ought to go and make notes on the fan base while it was still in its natural habitat.
Shortly after 10 a.m., about two hours before the opening faceoff, Jason Coyne and his friend Michael Decotis were sipping Jack and Cokes in the parking lot. “I’ve been an Islanders fan since I was 2 years old,” Jason said. “Now, I’m 35.”
“Thirty-seven,” Michael corrected him.
“Thirty-seven,” Jason said. He added apologetically, “Jack Daniel’s.”
The Hockey Gods are capricious. The Hockey Gods are cruel, but they are fair. The Hockey Gods giveth, and then they taketh away, and then they giveth again, occasionally right in the chops. (The Hockey Gods also get mysterious and nasty rashes for which they take a lot of guff from the other gods, which is when the Hockey Gods drop the gloves. That’s how we wound up with Hudson Bay, which used to be a nice piece of forest land before the bench-clearing brawl among the gods broke out.) And Thursday night at Verizon Center, the Hockey Gods had some fun with Steve Oleksy of the Washington Capitals.
This week, Grantland's Katie Baker will be previewing the NHL playoffs' first-round series. Today: Senators-Canadiens and Rangers-Capitals. Read Tuesday's installment here and Wednesday's here.
Ottawa Senators (7) at Montreal Canadiens (2)
Backstory: While it might not have been all that much of a stretch to predict that Ottawa and Montreal would both make it to the playoffs, no one could have expected that things would unfold quite like this. The Senators, who took the Rangers to seven games last year in the first round, lost three key players (captain Jason Spezza, goalie Craig Anderson, and golden child Erik Karlsson) to major injury, but managed to remain in postseason contention through focused play by a merry and motley band of guys. Get coach Paul MacLean that Jack Adams Award already, will ya?
This week, Grantland's Katie Baker will be previewing the NHL playoffs' first-round series. Today: Maple Leafs–Bruins, Islanders-Penguins, and Sharks-Canucks. Read yesterday's installment here.
Toronto Maple Leafs (5) at Boston Bruins (4)
Backstory: At last! The Toronto Maple Leafs ended their reign atop the hockey playoff-drought power rankings by finally qualifying for the first time in seven seasons. (Congratulations, Edmonton Oilers, you're our new biggest loser!) Now they'll try to erase another unsavory piece of history: their 46-year Stanley Cup drought. Toronto owes much of its success to goaltender James Reimer, who finished this season with a .924 save percentage and helped nip Roberto Luongo chatter in the bud. They've been led offensively by Phil Kessel (52 points), Nazem Kadri (44), and James van Riemsdyk (32) this season.
The Bruins limp into the postseason having won just three of their last 10 games down the stretch and fallen out of the Northeast Division's top slot on the last day of the regular season. They'll welcome back 13-goal scorer Nathan Horton, who missed five games because of an upper-body injury, and rely on contributions from the likes of David Krejci, Tyler Seguin, and Patrice Bergeron for offense. The good news is that when you have a guy like Zdeno Chara on your team — and you've got Tuukka Rask having an excellent season in net — the playoffs become a little easier.
Over the course of its history, the NHL has developed a long list of playoff traditions that hockey fans now hold dear: the playoff beard, the post-series handshake, the color-coordinated fans, and most important of all, booing Gary Bettman.
Recent years have seen another playoff staple emerge: the sympathetic old guy who hasn’t yet won a Cup.
That’s a veteran player who’s had a long and well-respected career, but is nearing the end of the road without ever having won a ring. As the playoffs drag on and the player gets closer to finally achieving his ultimate goal, it becomes almost impossible not to root for him. (Unless he's playing against your favorite team, in which case you’re still allowed to hope he breaks his hip.)
As an added bonus, when one of these guys is on the roster of the eventual champion, he immediately becomes the favorite to earn one of hockey’s greatest honors — being the first guy the captain hands the Cup to.
The most famous example of this was in 2001, when 40-year-old Ray Bourque finally won his first Stanley Cup in his 22nd season. That led to this scene, which still ranks as one of the best feel-good moments in sports history:
More recently, an emotional Teemu Selanne earned his first Cup in his 15th season in the league, which in hindsight, we will apparently refer to as the halfway point of his career. But this isn’t just a club for the superstars; grinders can earn the honor, too — like veteran fourth-liner Dallas Drake, who won his first Cup in his final NHL game at age 39.
Who’ll get to play the role this year? There’s no shortage of candidates. Here are 10 veteran players vying to be this year’s sympathetic old guy who finally gets a ring.