Mike Richards stands in the dressing room, anticipating the playoffs, preparing to defend the Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup championship. He is a player. He sounds like a fan.
“Every time I see a commercial on TV about it,” he says, “it gives you chills.”
It is hard not to notice the word “commercial.” After the latest NHL lockout, it is hard to forget that this is a business and the Mad Men are giving people chills to sell them stuff. Toronto and Montreal are back in the field, and as much as it’s about history and tradition, it’s about HRR and escrow. Have you seen the ticket prices?
But this is why they can charge what they charge. This is why the customers pay what they pay for tickets and TV packages and jerseys and goodness knows what else, like NHL Santa Claus dolls and toasters that burn NHL logos into bread.
Chills are chills. And for the first time since Richards and his teammates held the Cup over their heads at an arena named for an office supply store, the customers can feel like they’re getting full value, even at a premium price.
The 48-game regular season was good. It was so good that three and a half months of bitter bickering gave way to three and a half months of strong attendance and TV ratings. It was so good that many found they would prefer cutting the standard 82-game schedule to give each game added weight, even though that is unlikely. In some ways, it was as if the lockout never happened.
Still, the lockout hung over the product from the sloppy start to the exhausted finish. Players came from all over the globe in varying states of readiness, and they had one week of training camp and no exhibition games. Who was in shape? Who was sharp? Then they went through a frantic, compressed schedule – lots of games, few practices. Who was hurt? Who was tired?
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That’s done now. No more reporters loitering in hotel lobbies and standing on street corners for say-nothing sound bytes or political posturing. No more analyzing the lockout’s impact on the performance of this team or that player, with perhaps some exceptions.
The saving grace of 2012-13 is that the playoffs are unspoiled – for business or pleasure. The playoffs are the NHL’s greatest asset. They represent the best postseason in sports. The Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy there is to win, and it will not only be won – unlike 2004-05, when it was marked with “SEASON NOT PLAYED” – it will be earned.
You can argue that those who played elsewhere during the lockout will be more fatigued, while those who didn’t might be more fresh. You can argue that the seedings are skewed because there was less time for the cream to rise and the rest to fall in the standings. Maybe the field would have looked a little different had there been 82 games.
But generally 48 games was enough to smooth out the roughness, to allow players and teams to work off the rust, to determine 16 deserving teams. Now there will be four full rounds and no excuses. The playoffs will come down to the same things they always do – matchups and health, grit and goaltending, clutch play and plain luck. And if the shortened schedule skewed the standings at all, it will only add to the unpredictability of a tournament that has already been more and more unpredictable.
Labor strife begat the salary cap, and the salary cap begat parity, and you have to admit that parity begat widespread excitement and entertainment. Excellence? Depends on if you equate excellence with dominance. There are no dynasties anymore, for better and for worse. There are more good teams and fewer great teams, making it even harder to win the Cup.
No one has repeated since the Detroit Red Wings won the Cup in 1997 and ’98, and only two have come close to back-to-back Cups in the salary-cap era – the Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, who split Cup final appearances in 2008 and ’09. Seven different teams have won the Cup in seven years since the cap arrived. Nine have won it in nine if you go back a little further.
It is deceiving that the Kings became the first to win the Cup as an eighth seed last season. They underachieved in the regular season more than they overachieved in the playoffs. Only one other bottom-four seed has won the Cup since the league started seeding one through eight in each conference in 1993-94, and that was a fifth seed, the 1995 New Jersey Devils. It is still unclear whether the Kings started or reflect a trend.
But the feeling that anything can happen is as strong as ever before, if not stronger, and good luck guessing what will happen.
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Think the Chicago Blackhawks and Penguins are heavy favorites? The Vancouver Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and lost in the first round, and the Penguins were highly touted and lost in the first round, too. One type of each seed won in the first round – a first, a second, a third and so on – and not one but two bottom-four seeds went to the final. The Kings beat the Devils, a sixth seed.
There seems to be a divide between the old guard and the new this year -- and not just because all of the Original Six are in the field. The Wings extended the longest playoff streak in pro sports (22 seasons) while the Maple Leafs snapped the longest drought in the league (seven seasons). The last six Cup winners are all back, while five of the last seven teams in last season’s league standings have made the playoffs. (The Anaheim Ducks fit both categories.)
Yet there really is no playoff juggernaut to intimidate anyone. Two of last year's conference finalists (the Cup runner-up Devils and Phoenix Coyotes) didn't make the playoffs. The other two conference finalists from last year (the champion Kings and New York Rangers) are bottom-four seeds. As writer Sean McIndoe (a.k.a. Down Goes Brown) pointed out, only one team in the field has won in the first round each of the past two years, and that team is the Washington Capitals, those perennial disappointments, who never escaped the second round and are on their third coach and third approach in three playoffs.
Whom do you think will win? Who will?
Will a favorite surprise by actually living up to the hype? Will a team like the Caps, Canucks or San Jose Sharks do it when few expect it? Will the Rangers be this year’s Kings and fulfill their potential as a low seed? Will we see a real Cinderella run by, say, the Ottawa Senators or New York Islanders?
How will Gary Bettman be received when he awards the Cup in late, late June thanks to the you-know-what? Standard boos? More?
What will give you chills?
If you’ve come this far, if you’re among the countless still investing time and emotion and money through it all, chances are something will.