If only there were a way to boil down the two Game 5 battles in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this week – the Montreal Canadiens’ 7-4 victory against the New York Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks’ 5-4 double-overtime victory against the Los Angeles Kings – to their essentials. Then bottle them and guzzle them to satisfy ourselves whenever playoff hockey doesn’t meet our admittedly lofty standards.
On their own, they couldn’t be more different: The Eastern Conference’s ramshackle quasi-blowout amplified through two teams’ burgeoning animosity vs. the Western Conference’s near-classic display of proficiency, personified by the two best teams in hockey.
It was like watching a middleweight fight with two guys that are better talkers than boxers, followed by a heavyweight bout in which the pugilists traded blows for 12 rounds and then another two after them for good measure.
Combined, the two games check nearly every box for what makes this tournament unparalleled in sports: Heroes, villains, stars, grunts, hate, violence, artistry, redemption, unpredictability, chaos and exhilaration.
And, above all else, survival.
Both games shared a little DNA. The Blackhawks and Canadiens faced elimination and struck early in an attempt to avoid it, as for the first time in both series the officials whistled penalties in the first minute of play. Alex Galchenyuk and Brent Seabrook scored, and away we went.
Both games featured characters who had been written out of the script – Rene Bourque for the Canadiens, Patrick Kane for the Blackhawks – roaring back to prominence offensively.
Both games weren’t exactly defensive exhibitions, but they also weren’t burn-the-tapes atrocious either. They had a combined 20 goals. Search high and wide for those who claim scoring is declining in the NHL, and then ask them this: If it weren’t for the 2-1 games, would we geek out over the 5-4 ones as hardcore as we do?
It’s like making the human characters in “Godzilla” so callow: When the monster finally shows up, the whole thing snaps to life.
The Canadiens/Rangers Game 5 was the quintessential example of how hate gestates in a playoff series.
Montreal came off a series between hockey’s Hatfields and McCoys, and did what they could to goad the Rangers in the first two games of their conference final to no avail – Alain Vigneault said ‘skate away’ and they did.
Then came the Brandon Prust hit on Derek Stepan in Game 3, and a referee’s whistle didn’t follow it. So we had our first fight, Daniel Carcillo bumping an official, Michel Therrien flip-flopping on the Prust hit’s legality, Danny Briere accusing the Rangers of “fishy” injury disclosure, and two suspensions.
Then came Game 4 and the Canadiens’ infuriating Louganis routine, followed by Marty St. Louis’s overtime goal that would appear to be the dagger in Habs’ hearts until Game 5 proved they were still beating loudly. Then we had more embellishment, the best goalie in the world chased, John Moore on Dale Weise, Derek Dorsett’s head butt and myriad other moments of nastiness.
And above all else, we had a team earning the chance to play another day.
The Blackhawks/Kings series didn’t have the snark or the supplemental disciplinary moments of the other side of the bracket. Just two brilliant former champions, alternately playing chess and keep-away.
Game 5 was what happens when desperation is injected to reanimate a corpse.
Frustrated by the Kings’ machine-like efficiency at Staples Center, the Hawks got up early, saw it slip away, tied it up and then played what Joel Quenneville swears is the best overtime session he’s ever seen. And he’s seen plenty.
Jesus, take the wheel for those 22 heart-stopping minutes. Wondering if the Blackhawks could conjure one more goal for survival. Wondering which one of the Kings’ many clutch men would end the game. Wondering if the final goal would continue to crumble the legacy of Corey Crawford, or continue to baffle us as to why Jonathan Quick can simultaneously look like a Jedi or Jar-Jar in the same period this postseason.
Naturally, the game-winning goal was scored by a guy who had played about 15 minutes of the previous 120 minutes of the series:
OK, who had Michael Handzus in the pool?
I watched most of Game 5 of the Blackhawks/Kings game at a bar in the East Village of Manhattan, where it managed to find television real estate despite there being a Yankee game and the Heat vs. Pacers that night. (No small feat in the city, even if the Rangers are still alive.)
As the game entered overtime, I noticed more and more bodies crowded around that flat screen, gasping and “awwwww’ing” with every chance, eyes transfixed like in the movies when everyone is watching the same Presidential address or catastrophe.
Significantly more than had been watching LeBron, actually.
I don’t want to turn this into NBA vs. NHL, Round 2 billion.
I just use this as an observational evidence of what we, as hockey fans, hold true:
The Stanley Cup Playoffs, when played to their highest level or when their passions transform into bedlam, are as addictive as anything in sports. It doesn't matter if you've been skating since you were a toddler or some casual drop-in who has a cousin that lives in Chicago.
Once it grabs you, it consumes you. Once one mistake means elimination, every moment is hypnotic.
Wonder what the Game 6s will hold…