The thrill is back

It is always in the spring when hockey puts its problems behind it, when the game is finally all that matters. It is always in the spring when the chase for Lord Stanley's Cup, which begins Friday, brings everything back to the way it is supposed to be.

The suits can't ruin the thrill of playoff hockey. Neither can TV contracts, salary caps or revenue sharing. Nothing can stop the chills of seven back-and-forth games, the frantic screams of sudden-death overtime, the amped-up intensity, the passion and the emotion that makes this Chase for the Cup as good as it gets.

Actually, the suits and the problems they invent can ruin it. They did it last year when the ice melted and we had nothing but labor updates, bad posturing and Gary Bettman press conferences. It was the lowest of moments for the NHL, with greed and ego robbing fans of what matters most – a beautiful spring night with a hockey game on.

This season has been about steadying feet and working through the kinks. It hasn't been perfect, but it has been mostly successful. Most of the new rules have helped open up the game, create more speed and increase scoring. Talent has been able to fly free. Yes, there have been too many penalties – the calls sometimes coming one after another and turning the game into an exercise in special teams – but everything is a work in progress at this point.

And there has been a flush of new talent, basically two entry drafts worth, with Washington Capitals left wing Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby leading a crop of skilled young players.

Media attention hasn't been as strong. The NHL is not creating a buzz outside of certain hot beds of the sport and even there, things have slowed. The league isn't what it was two years ago, let alone 20.

The loss of the ESPN package not only made it difficult to grab casual fans but it also seemed to decrease the attention paid to the sport on "SportsCenter." The lowly Outdoor Life Network started the season as amateur hour – its between-studio set looked like it came from Wayne and Garth's basement – and improved some, but not enough. Who knows what NBC will do with the games during the playoffs?

But that won't matter to the fans hockey can't shake, the ones that spun the turn styles this winter often in record numbers. The game's fan base may be smaller, but it is no less passionate at its core.

And for them, this is the treat.

The most confusing part of being a hockey fan is wondering how this couldn't be big everywhere. Non-fans just never seem to get it. There is nothing in sports more exciting than overtime playoff hockey. The seesawing drama – the fact that anything can happen at any moment and that one bounce of the puck could change the course of a series – is heart racing.

Hockey has always thought that if you expose non-fans to this kind of excitement they will become diehards. But it has never happened in the numbers expected. They've staged Stanley Cup games in Florida, North Carolina and Texas and the sport never caught on with the same passion as northern locations perhaps because the long, slow grind of a regular season can't match the magic of spring.

The result of chasing false promise was a lost season. No checks. No goals. No Cup.

But this is when hockey fans can stop apologizing for loving what they love, when all the game's business problems melt away faster than a third-period rush. If the non-fans can't figure out what they are missing, then it's their loss.

The question for these playoffs – more than just "Are the Detroit Red Wings unstoppable?" and "Is this finally the Ottawa Senators' year?" and "Are the New York Rangers really back?" – is whether the way the game was called and played in the regular season will carry over to the playoffs.

Will there be an abundance of penalties? Will so many power plays keep the games high-scoring, eliminating the classic 1-0 or 2-1 playoff game that is exponentially more exciting than non-fans think? Or will refs do what they always have done: swallow whistles and let the boys play?

At the very least, the quirky shootout experiment is done. In the playoffs, sudden death can go on and on and on. And on some nights, it will.

So here come the bleary eyes from staying up late watching. Here comes the obsessing over your goalie. Here comes the rabid hatred that a good playoff brawl can incite. Here come the comebacks, the putbacks, the backhands and the backchecks.

Twenty-two months after Dave Andreychuk skated the Cup around Tampa, here comes spring. Here comes playoff hockey.

It's been too, too long.