We are staring square at the very real possibility of the Eastern conference champion being decided between the 7 and 8 seeds this postseason. Such a development would add fresh fuel to the charge that the NHL’s regular season is altogether meaningless. Interestingly, the Capitals’ Mike Green intimated as much when he met with media at Kettler Capitals last week. We have 82 games to get through [next season] before we get another shot [at redemption], the rearguard noted.
Just what was the Capitals’ reward for their 54-win, 121-pt., President’s trophy performance this past regular season? A single extra home game in a best of seven series. Nothing else. In the NFL
and Major League Baseball, true excellence is acknowledged in the postseason with a bye for the elite achievers. I’m not suggesting that the NHL necessarily follow this example — there’s something sacrificially sacred about four rounds and 16 wins required to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup — but clearly a postseason such as this one invites fresh scrutiny about hockey’s whole season, and specifically how its elite teams are acknowledged.
More so than with any offseason I can ever recall, this one in Washington strikes me as offering a remarkable challenge to the Caps as they market next season to Washington’s sports fans. The seats in Verizon Center next season will be filled, to be sure, but how do the Caps contest the well-grounded perception that next October through March is little more than 80-odd exhibition games? They just won the Southeast division for the third consecutive season, but this time by nearly 40 points. Beginning next October, won’t everyone who talks about the Caps in this town wonder the same thing: is this club better assembled for spring?
Then, they might well wonder: even if they are a better club, it doesn’t much matter if they run into another hot goalie. The proverbial hot goalie in spring is both the billboard and bane of our sport. I’m not suggesting that that change. Rather, I wonder if excellence October through mid-April is appropriately acknowledged.
In the case of Montreal’s consecutive upsets of the Caps and Pens, hats off to the Habs for buying in to Jacques Martin’s team-first, aesthetics third system of trapping and getting it done. At this time of year, after all, it is all about winning. But as I watched the Bell Centre throng celebrate madly each and every Habs’ score in game 7 — and good on Versus for offering viewers the stark contrast between Bell Centre and the macabre mass of mullets at Mellon Arena one final time — I couldn’t help but wonder: what would Jean Beliveau have said about the trap? The brothers Richard? The Flower?
The Habs resorted to a trap this postseason because they were overmatched in skill in both rounds. That’s not a subject the mob on St. Catherine’s Street much cares to discuss this spring. Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec are terrific hockey players. But they are not elite performers in our sport. They aren’t going to particularly thrill the suits at NBC with their arrival on hockey’s grand stage later this month. They are having superb postseasons — along with Jaroslav Halak they’re huge reasons why the Habs will be favored I think to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. And the league and its fans can celebrate their underdog insurgence this postseason; I’d be the first the tip my cap at Martin’s skaters battling through a litany of injuries and buying wholly into the new system he’s installed this spring. The Habs’ success this postseason is a testament to the discipline and commitment Martin’s skaters have nightly showed. But again I ask: ultimately, is this the product the league wants as advertisement for its game?
Does the league want more teams assembled and managed like the Caps? Ostensibly you would think so. More Caps, less Devils, right? But what’s their reward?
To take this back to the postseason — should a no. 1 seed enjoy the last line change in every game through the conference finals? Should it have five home games instead of four? Should it have veto authority over certain referees? Should it not enjoy a status greater than what it is presently offered by the league? I certainly think so. I’d be curious to know your thoughts.