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Friday, April 07, 2006

All-hockey Friday

OK, I’m back.  But I’m back only to talk about the hockey playoffs.

And yet this will not be a trivial, prognosticatin’ kind of post in which I predict that the Carolina Hurricanes will meet the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern finals and the Detroit Red Wings will meet the Calgary Flames in the West.  Oh, no.  This will be an in-depth, longitudinal look at the very structure of hockey playoffs since 1967.

For I continue to insist that hockey is humankind’s most perfect sport, with just the right mix of large and small muscle groups, finely-tuned skill and WTF luck, individual and team effort, dazzling finesse and good old-fashioned bone-crunchin’.  But when it comes to talking about the actually existing NHL, I have to admit that organizationally, it’s basically the League of Extraordinarily Stupid Gentlemen.  Last year’s sitdown/ lockout/ clusterschmuck was but the most recent and vivid example at hand, and it reminded me that the last time the NHL had a thrilling, seven-game, fast-skating, trap-free final series like the Flames-Lightning affair of 2004 (that would be in 1993-94, when the New York Rangers made it possible for me and all my kind to die in peace), they decided to celebrate with a lockout then, too. 

But quite apart from the sport’s management troubles, the problem plaguing hockey for many, many years was that its playoff system was the laughingstock of Ye Entire World of Sport.  In part, that was because the league had 21 teams from 1979 to 1991, and 16 of those made the playoffs every year.  Those were the days in which the late Dick Young quipped that if World War II were a hockey season, Poland would have made the playoffs.  And what days they were: in 1979-80, after the World Hockey Association folded and bequeathed four of its franchises to the NHL (Hartford, Quebec, Winnipeg, Edmonton), the NHL went from a stupid system in which 17 teams played 80 games in order to eliminate five franchises from the playoffs to an even more stupid system in which 21 teams played 80 games in order to eliminate five franchises from the playoffs.

Which brings me to the other reason hockey playoffs sucked for many years: the league simply could not figure out a way of seeding playoff teams in such a way as to try to get the best finals possible.  That’s not entirely the league’s fault, of course: as Emile “The Cat” Francis used to say, hockey is a slippery game.  It’s played on ice.  Teams that hover around .500 all year can suddenly get hot in May, and before you know it, they’ve knocked off a couple of rivals who’d outplayed them for eight months, and lo, they are in a conference final.  And as all of us forwards know, goaltenders can lease their souls to Satan—but only for two-week periods, during which time they are unbeatable for just long enough to propel their teams past far more talented contenders (see, e.g., Vanbiesbrouck, John, 1996; Kolzig, Olaf, 1998; Hasek, Dominic, 1999; Giguere, Jean-Sebastien, 2003; Roy, Patrick, passim). 

But still.  The league expanded from six teams to twelve in 1967-68, and—get this—decided to put all the expansion teams in the “Western” division.  Then the top four teams in the East and the West played each other, and the East champion met the West champion in the finals.  Guess what?  From 1968 to 1970, the first three finals series were 4-0 blowouts!  Who could have predicted that?  Finally, in 1970-71, the league had the bright idea of having the Eastern teams meet the West in the second round, and the result was one of the best finals in living memory, the seven-game Chicago-Montreal series in which the Canadiens and Black Hawks won every game on their home ice until Montreal came back from a 2-0 deficit in Chicago in game seven (see my hockey page for a photo of me with the guy who scored the tying and winning goals).  For a while, the playoffs were pretty good.  Boston won a couple of Cups, Philly won a couple, and Montreal won half a dozen.  And then came the WHA merger.

In 1979-80 and 1980-81, the NHL disregarded “divisions” and “conferences” altogether, and simply seeded teams 1 through 16 at the end of the year.  In 1979-80, the 16th team was the Edmonton Oilers, with a record of 28-39-13 for 69 points (to those of you who are unfamiliar with hockey, teams get two points for a win and one for a tie . . . hey, wait a minute!  If you’re unfamiliar with hockey, what are you doing reading down this far?).  At the same time, the divisions themselves didn’t make much sense: the Atlanta Flames had moved to Calgary but remained in the “Patrick” division, which gave you a group consisting of the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, New York Rangers . . . and Calgary.

Now, let’s not forget about Poland.  For me, the legitimacy of a sports league has a great deal to do with the fate of its sub-.500 teams.  It is a measure of the soundness of baseball and football, in this respect, that they’ve never let a team with a losing record sneak into the postseason.  Oh, they’ve flirted with it: a few 8-8 imposters have tiptoed into the NFL wild card, but—until the sorry-ass 2004 St. Louis Rams in the sorry-ass NFC—none had ever gotten past the first round (and the Rams were promptly greeted by the Falcons in the second round, and sent home on the short end of a 47-17 rout).  And who can forget last year’s captivating pennant race in the NL West, as the sickly Padres wrestled mightily with .500 throughout August and September, finally breaking the tape at 82-80 (and wresting from the 1973 Mets, 82-79, the coveted laurel of “worst playoff team evah”)?

Yes, well.  Let’s talk about sickly, shall we?

In 1981-82, the NHL moved to a system in which the top four teams in each division made the playoffs, and the first two rounds of the playoffs consisted of intradivisional series.  That system stayed in place for a decade.  Three divisions had five teams, one had six.  In the Smythe (don’t ask), the Los Angeles Kings made the NHL playoffs with a record of 24-41-15 (63 points).  That’s just wrong.  And what followed was even wronger: they beat the first-place Oilers (48-17-15, 111 points) in a five-game series, winning game one by a surreal score of 10-8.  (Ah, those were the days!  Marcel Dionne had 50 goals for the Kings that year.  Gretzky had 92 for the Oilers.  Last team to score wins!)

You see the problem here.  The Oilers play 80 games in which they dominate their division; Gretzky sets single-season scoring records that will probably never be broken (he added 120 assists for 212 points); and by the end of April, he and his teammates are playing golf.  Meanwhile, the Vancouver Canucks, a scintillating 30-33-17 (77 points) in the regular season, run the suddenly Oilers-less table, going 11-2 in three series and then winding up in one of the most lopsided finals ever, losing to the vastly more talented Islanders in four.

Throughout the decade, the travesties just kept on comin’. In 1984-85, the Rangers (26-44-10) and the Minnesota North Stars (25-43-12) made the playoffs.  (At least the Rangers had the good grace to leave early that year; in 1983 they finished fourth in the division but swept the first-place Flyers in round one.) In 1985-86, the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs finished 25-48-7.  Did they beat the first-place Black Hawks anyway?  Of course they did!  In 1990-91, the lowly Minnesota North Stars finished 27-39-14.  Did they beat the first-place Black Hawks (49-23-8) anyway?  Of course they did!  In fact, they went to the finals that year.  Go figure.  But by June they had learned how to play hockey, partly by watching better teams and then beating them (cough—Oilers—cough), and their six-game final against the flashy Penguins wasn’t all that bad.

The lowlights of the 1980s, imho: 1986-87, when the entire Norris division finished below sea level (St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, Minnesota, the first four of whom made the playoffs, natch), and 1987-88, in which the 21-49-10 Maple Leafs made the playoffs.  That’s right, a .300 team!  The mind reels.

As a result of all this flimflammery, Stanley Cup finals tended to be profoundly anticlimactic.  Between the epochal Chicago-Montreal series in 1971 and the earth-shattering Vancouver-Rangers series in 1994, only one series went the full seven games, the Oilers-Flyers final in 1987.  And even that final was prolonged only because Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall had leased his soul to Satan.  Otherwise, Philadelphia didn’t belong on the same sheet of ice with the Oilers of Gretzky, Kurri, Messier, and Coffey.

In 1991-92, however, the league began to expand again.  The San Jose Sharks joined the NHL, and were followed the next year by the Ottawa Senators and the Tampa Bay Lightning, and then the year after that by the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks.  Perhaps not coincidentally, 1992-93 marked the first year in which all the NHL’s playoff teams had records over .500.  The weakest among them, St. Louis, finished fourth in the Norris with a 37-36-11 record.  And did they beat the first-place Black Hawks (47-25-12) anyway?  Of course they did!  In four straight!

In 1993-94, the annus mirabilis, only one sub-.500 team made it: the third-year expansion Sharks, at 33-35-16.  That year, the NHL switched to the playoff system it’s used ever since, namely: the top eight teams in each conference go to the postseason, and the division winners are seeded one-two-three.  And did the Sharks beat the one-seed Red Wings anyway?  I bet you know the answer to that.

In 1995-96 it appeared that the league had achieved a breakthrough: the 37-33-12 New Jersey Devils did not make the cut.  But this was an illusory breakthrough, an uneven development, for in the West, there were only three teams over .500 for the year.  That’s because the Red Wings went an incredible 62-13-7 (131 points), leaving only table scraps for everyone else, until the Avalanche beat them in a vicious conference final on their way to the Cup (in their first year in Denver; too bad the good people of Quebec City, who’d suffered through many years of pathetic Nordiquedom, didn’t get to celebrate their Sakic-led champions).  In 1997-98 the eighth seed in the East, Ottawa, finished 34-33-15.  Did they beat the one-seed Devils?  Yep.  In 1998-99 the eighth seed in the East was Pittsburgh, finishing 38-30-14.  Did they beat the one-seed Devils?  Mmm-hmm.  Weirdly, the mid-1990s were lackluster years for the Stanley Cup finals.  Even though the league had finally devised a playoff system that made sense, and had expanded to the point (26 teams) at which very few sub-.500 (and no .300) teams made the postseason, the teams themselves refused to cooperate, especially in the East.  After the Devils’ 1995 sweep of the Red Wings, the Eastern conference sent the Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers, and Washington Capitals off to be swept in four by stronger Western teams (Colorado and Detroit).  Finally, the four-year string of sweeps was broken in 1999 by the Buffalo-Dallas series (even though Buffalo was the East’s seventh seed), still remembered in Buffalo as the “no goal” series, as a result of Brett Hull’s controversial triple-overtime winner in game six.  (There was no question that under the ludicrous and soon-to-be-repealed “crease” rules of the day, Hull’s goal was invalid.  But it was 1:30 in the morning, the score was 1-1, and Hasek and Belfour were the two best goaltenders on the planet.  Surely the officials saw Hull’s “goal” as their only chance to leave the building before dawn.)

And then, in 2000, the real breakthrough.  Three teams—Montreal in the east, Vancouver and Anaheim in the west—finished over .500 and missed the playoffs.  True, they were over .500 by only one game, but the NHL had finally arrived.  In 2001, with the league at its current level of thirty teams (Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Columbus being the newbies), Boston missed the playoffs with 88 points, and Phoenix missed the playoffs with 90.  The only time such a thing had happened in NHL history was the freakish year of 1969-70 (my first year in hockey), when the Rangers and Canadiens finished with identical records (38-22-16) but the Rangers squeaked in on the goals-scored tiebreaker, having scored 246 for the year to Montreal’s 244, thanks to their epic 9-5 defeat of Detroit on the final day of the season (much resented in Montreal, where it was widely believed that the Red Wings had taken a bit of a rest).  So Montreal missed the playoffs in 1970 with 92 points, and for the first time in hockey history, there was no Canadian team in the postseason; the Canadiens then had the treat of sitting home and watching the Western division Penguins (26-38-12), Minnesota North Stars (19-35-22), and Oakland Seals (22-40-14) flail haplessly at each other.

Then in 2001-02 the 92-point Oilers and 90-point Stars stayed home after the season was done, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the talent-rich West.  Weirdly, in 2002-03 all the playoff teams were over .500 and all the also-rans were under; and in 2003-04, only Edmonton (89), Buffalo (85), and Minnesota (83) were left out in the cold.

All of which brings us at last, by commodius vicus of recirculation, to the amazing present day, in which, as I write, there are seven teams at .500 or better who will not clear the playoff bar.  And I have very bad news for you Canuck fans, in Vancouver and around the globe: as I’ve surmised over the past few weeks, you’ll be sitting out this one.  You thought you were clinging to the seventh or eighth spot, but that was only because you’d played three more games than the Sharks.  Your only hope, I think, is to sweep San Jose in the home-and-home series next week, April 12-13.  Nashville, meanwhile, is picking a very bad time of year to hit a slump.  Anaheim and Edmonton could be very dangerous.  But I don’t see anyone at Detroit’s talent level.  Unless they’re beaten by the eight seed.  Could it happen?  Never!  That would be silly.

In the East, where my heart resides, the Rangers did themselves an enormous favor by beating the Flyers in last Tuesday’s shootout.  See, the thing is this.  Whoever finishes second in the Atlantic conference will wind up with the five seed, and will have to open on the road against Buffalo.  The Rangers don’t want to do that.  Neither do the Flyers, who are 0-3 against the Sabres this year.  So this divisional race matters.  However: the team that escapes the Sabres will have to face either New Jersey or Montreal.  The Devils are battered but leathery, and the Canadiens just happen to be hitting their stride, having won eight straight.  So the Rangers may not get out of the first round, no matter who they face.  All across the board, I see a first round full of ferocious six- and seven-game series.

I have great hope for Jaromir Jagr, though.  Someone (perhaps Jagr himself) has finally screwed his head firmly onto his body, and he’s not only playing brilliantly—he’s taking command of games.  The March 27 game against Buffalo, for example: the Rangers had just lost three in a row, two of them in shootouts, and they were down 4-2 after two periods against a team they badly needed to beat (at home, no less).  Between periods, Jagr said, “see here, fellows!  This will never do.  It is high time we took this game in hand!” (I have the transcript if you want to see it.) Turning to Petr Sykora and Michael Nylander, he urged his teammates to place pucks into the Sabres’ net by sheer force of will.  And behold!  Sykora scored on assists from Nylander and Jagr.  Then Jagr scored on assists from Nylander and Sykora.  Then Sykora scored in the shootout.  That’s what we like to see: clutch hockey in late March.  Guys takin’ it to the Next Level.  Stepping up.  Gut check time.  Getting going when the going gets tough.  Scoring more scores than the other team within a fixed time period and thereby winning the game.

It has not, of course, escaped my notice that Jagr has broken the Rangers’ single-season scoring record of 109 points, set by my hero Jean Ratelle 34 years ago.  (Yes, Rod Gilbert was also my hero.  I had two.  And they grew up playing together, too.  How did I feel when Ratelle was traded to Boston?  Pretty much the way Rod felt.) In 1971-72, Ratelle had 46 goals and 63 assists . . . but he had ‘em in 63 games.  The official Rangers website notes that Ratelle broke his ankle on March 1 of that year, ending his season.  But it doesn’t say that Ratelle broke his ankle when teammate Dale Rolfe hit him with a slapshot during a power play in a meaningless game against the anemic California Golden Seals, in the twelfth game of a sixteen-game unbeaten streak.  I was there.  I saw Jean fall.  Great were the lamentations throughout Madison Square Garden that night, and many were the groans and bitter grousings.

That’s not to take anything away from Jagr, who’s having a truly wonderful year.  It’s just to remind all of you Bruins fans out there that if my Ratelle had played all 76 games at that 131.5-point pace, he would have outscored your Bobby Orr (117 points) and contended with your Phil Esposito (133 points) for the scoring title right down to the final weekend.  Hey, wait a minute!  If you’re a Bruins fan, what are you doing reading down this far?

Interestingly, when Rangers do well in the individual-scoring department, the Rangers do well.  Rangers have scored 50 goals in a season precisely three times since the Earth’s crust cooled and became habitable by hockey-playing life forms.  In 1972, Vic Hadfield was set up by Ratelle 50 times, and managed to make the puck bounce off his stick from Ratelle’s pass in such a way as to get credit for a goal.  The Ratelle-less Rangers went to the finals, losing to Boston in six.  In 1994, Adam Graves scored 52, and . . . well, we will not say what transpired thereafter, except that it was more important than the moon landing or the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This year Jagr has 52 with six games to play.  If he can avoid ankle-breaking slapshots from his defensemen, he has a good chance to rewrite the Rangers record books altogether.  He might even (pause, dramatic intake of breath) lead the league in scoring. . . .

And does anyone know the last time a Ranger led the league in scoring?  No, Andy Bathgate’s 84 points in 1961-62 don’t count.  He was tied with Bobby Hull for the year.  I’m asking when a Ranger won the scoring title outright.  Here’s a hint: his last name has appeared in this very post, affixed to someone else’s first name.  Extra special bonus points for anyone who can tell me when a Ranger won the scoring title and the Rangers won the Stanley Cup.  I believe it was just after hockey had moved its games indoors and had decided to abandon the gutta-percha puck.

One last thing.  The Carolina Hurricanes will meet the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern finals and the Detroit Red Wings will meet the Calgary Flames in the West.

Posted by Michael on 04/07 at 09:25 AM
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