I watched more playoff hockey this past season than I have in the last decade and there’s a big reason for that.
I’ve been a hockey fan for 23 years but admittedly things went south for me after the second of Gary Bettman’s THREE lockouts during his tenure as Commissioner of the National Hockey League. Seriously, I know three strikes is a baseball thing but why does this man still have his job? Especially with as much as he is soundly booed across the entire league? I digress.
The second NHL lockout that wiped out the 2004-2005 season and played a decent part in why Steve Yzerman never got to 700 goals in his career(yes, I’m still bitter about that) is the one that really changed the game of hockey from what I knew and enjoyed for nearly a decade into what the game has evolved into now. That’s when the salary cap era began, that’s when the big rule changes came into play and most importantly from a fan standpoint, that’s when National Hockey Night on ESPN officially died and the “Versus Rebirth” rolling into the NBC Sports era officially started. It was jarring, it was different and even though I gave it a shot for the first few years because the Red Wings were still great, I didn’t like it. It was too different for me in many ways.
So once the Wings started their descent into mediocrity, I checked out for a good bit. I followed from afar and kept minimal tabs on winners and losers, but I didn’t watch nearly as religiously as I used to, which was disappointing because hockey has been my 1B favorite sport along with my 1A of football for a long time. I didn’t like that I wasn’t digging how the game had changed overall.
Within the last five or six years though, I was trying to come around. The Wings were in a rough place and it was only getting rougher, but there were some fun things happening, most notably when it came to the Stanley Cup winners. Outside of Chicago’s non-dynasty winning in 2010, 2013 and 2015 and Pittsburgh’s back-to-back wins in 2016 and 2017, you had the LA Kings winning it all as an 8-seed in 2012, only to come back two years later to win again with actual home ice 2014. That was a great story.
Washington finally getting over the hump 20 years since the 1998 finals when the Wings swept the Capitals in four games was fun to watch, mostly for Alex Ovechkin who can now retire with a cup victory in his career. That was another great story.
Then you get to the 2019 NHL playoffs, which was seriously just a thing to behold.
In the weeks leading up to the playoffs, I had caught some games on Hockey Night In Canada during late workout sessions at the gym. I saw enough to rekindle my sports hatred for Toronto and Pittsburgh and also raise an eyebrow at the New York Islanders and Columbus in the process. I also had no idea Calgary was really good again either and yes, I was rooting against Tampa Bay breaking the 1995-1996 Red Wings record for most victories in a single season. Once a Wings fan, always a Wings fan. Period.
When the chaos actually started in the first round of the playoffs, it was seriously the most fun I’ve had following hockey in a long time. First the Islanders got out of the first round with a sweep of the Penguins, which warmed my heart but it wasn’t exactly an upset. What WAS an upset though, was Columbus taking out Tampa Bay in its own shocking sweep that ended on the Blue Jackets home ice. In four games, the President’s Trophy winner was dispatched by a franchise that had never won a playoff series before in its existence. Incredible.
Then Colorado, a franchise I used to loathe with great intensity, dispatched Calgary in five games, which now meant that both 8-seeds in the NHL playoffs got out of the first round in five games or less. Unbelievable.
If that wasn’t enough, there were THREE Game Sevens in the first round, the least fun of which was Boston eliminating Toronto, though I did appreciate the Leafs going home in an early exit. Believe it or not, Carolina beating Washington in double overtime to win that series and send the defending champions home was second place in terms of the Game Sevens on the “fun” meter. No, the best one by far was San Jose scoring four goals in a matter of minutes in the third period to erase a 3-0 deficit and take a 4-3 lead late in the game, only to have Las Vegas tie it in the final minute before San Jose ultimately won in overtime. One of the craziest, most high octane Game Sevens I’ll ever see in my life.
In the second round, Carolina went on a roll and swept the Islanders, keeping its clock from reaching midnight into the third round, while every other series went at least six games and San Jose needed another seven game series to dispatch Colorado, the team that knocked out the top seed in the Western Conference. Mind you the entire time, St. Louis was going about its business knocking out Winnipeg in six games and Dallas in seven games, before rinsing and repeat the same formula against San Jose in the conference finals to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since Richard Nixon was the President of the United States, while Boston hit the snooze button on Carolina in a sweep to punch its ticket.
With all of this happening in the earlier rounds, that made it all the more fitting that St. Louis, the team that was in last place in January without a consistent starting goaltender at the time, would battle and claw their way through another seven game series, the sixth total in the NHL playoffs this season, to win its first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Thus concluding the true year of the underdog in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, from Round 1 all the way to the end.
There’s no other league that does parity quite like the NHL does. This is hardly the first time we’ve seen a major underdog hockey club win it all, but having so many major upsets in the first round and seeing a last place team in January win it all six months later is nearly impossible in each of the other professional leagues. Upsets of this magnitude rarely happen if ever in the NBA, MLB only puts 10 out of 30 teams into the playoffs in the first place so there’s really no true underdogs that even make the Fall Classic, and the NFL’s parity is so blatantly manufactured and mostly takes place during the regular season, that a team that may have started the year as an underdog might have a bye week in January once the playoffs start, and even that hasn’t been enough to push aside a franchise like the New England Patriots from going to four of the last five Super Bowls and winning three of them.
Meanwhile in the NHL, all you have to do is make the field of 16 and get hot at the right time. It doesn’t even need to be the whole team, it could be just your goalie, a case that could certainly be made about Jordan Binnington, the 25-year old Blues goalie that stood on his head in crucial games for St. Louis, including Game 7 of the Finals where he stopped 32 of 33 shots to seal the win.
Before Binnington it was Jonathan Quick standing on his head for the LA Kings when they won in 2012 as an 8-seed. Before that it was the 2006 Edmonton Oilers that were an 8-seed in the West before smashing their way to become the first 8-seed in NHL history to make the finals, even pushing Carolina to seven games before losing the series.
Indeed, the NHL has cornered the market on parity in professional sports in a way that no other league can truly claim, and if it’s going to be this much fun to watch on a yearly basis, then count me all the way back in……especially if and when the Wings get good again.