The NHL went 29 years, starting in 1972 and including 2000, with only two Stanley Cup Finals going the full seven games. Ten times in that span, the title series was a four-game sweep, including four consecutive following the Rangers’ epic seven-game battle with Vancouver in 1994.
Since Colorado defeated New Jersey in 2001, however, six of the 13 Stanley Cup Finals have been seven-gamers — and none have been sweeps. Even Los Angeles’ victory over the Rangers last spring was an ordeal, with three of the five games decided in overtime — after the finalists had endured five seven-game series and one six-gamer in the first three rounds.
So if you think watching your favorite hockey team in the playoffs is more stressful than it used to be, you’re right. As Mike Emrick might say while calling another nail-biter on NBC, this sport is not for the faint of heart.
This is an era of parity in the NHL. Partly because of the salary cap, there is neither a dominant team nor a transcendent scorer.
Goaltenders are bigger. Gone are the days when Bernie Parent and Billy Smith, both 5-foot-10, could lead their teams to multiple championships. Today’s game belongs to tall goalies such as Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, who at 6-7 is the latest obstacle in the Rangers’ road to the Cup, and Frederik Andersen, the 6-3 Dane who stopped 32 of 33 shots as Anaheim beat Chicago in Game 1 of the Western Conference final.
As if the goaltenders’ height and reach weren’t enough to make scoring a challenge, their pads are bigger than they used to be, too. Rules prevent netminders from ballooning the way Garth Snow did in leading the Flyers to the 1997 Stanley Cup Final, but some observers (including yours truly) believe that goalie equipment needs to slim down to 1970s or ’80s dimensions. There simply isn’t enough net to shoot at when big goalies are wearing big pads.
All game long, forwards scratch and claw to deflect a shot from the point, block the goalie’s vision, lure him out of position, or knock in a rebound. When the shooter faces a goalie who is not screened, it takes a perfectly timed shot taken with uncanny accuracy to score — such as Ondrej Palat’s one-timer for Tampa Bay in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Rangers.
No wonder that in the last two years, only one player (Sidney Crosby, with 104 last season) has been able to register more than 87 points over a regular-season schedule. Yet while scoring is down, comebacks are commonplace, in both series and individual games.
The Rangers in the last round became the first club in NHL history to rally in consecutive years from 3-games-to-1 down. And of the four comebacks from 0-3 series deficits in league annals, two have come in the last five years — Philadelphia over Boston in 2010, and Los Angeles over San Jose last season.
The Ducks led wire-to-wire today, but in four of their first eight playoff wins this spring, Anaheim trailed after two periods. That’s nothing compared to what Boston did to break Toronto’s heart two years ago, when the Bruins — who trailed 4-1 in Game 7 five-and-a-half minutes into the third period — scored two goals 31 seconds apart with the goalie pulled, then completed the stunning rally in overtime.
Those Bruins ultimately fell victim to another kind of frantic finish — the last-minute goal that breaks a tie. In Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, Chicago scored the tying and winning goals just 17 seconds apart, evening the score with the goalie pulled and adding the Cup clincher with 58.3 seconds remaining. Just like that, a 2-1 win to force a Game 7 became a 3-2 loss and a handshake line before a shocked Boston crowd.
During this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, Tampa Bay scored with 1.1 seconds remaining in regulation to beat Montreal, less than a week after Washington had scored with 1.3 ticks left to stun the Rangers. The score of both of those games was 2-1. In fact, 10 of the Rangers’ last 15 playoff games have ended 2-1, part of a league-record stretch of 15 consecutive one-goal playoff games spanning two years. This is in stark contrast to the Islanders’ stretch of four straight Cups from 1980-83, when they played just three 2-1 games and 16 decided by one goal — over a span of 78 playoff games.
And I haven’t even mentioned what it’s like to watch overtime, when there are no commercial breaks for the first 10 minutes and play continues for such long stretches that you can’t take your eyes off the ice. This isn’t basketball, where the last two minutes of a close game are usually interrupted by fouls and timeouts. When the game is on the line in hockey, coaches let the players play.
So if you have a heart condition, keep your cardiologist close at hand. Every goal is huge because these games are low-scoring, but no outcome is predictable because this is the NHL of the 21st century.
Filed May 17, 2015
Sources: NHL.com; Hockey-Reference.com; Total Stanley Cup: The Official Encyclopedia of the Stanley Cup; 60 Moments That Changed the Game (special edition of The Hockey News).