There's a reason they call it the most wonderful time of the year not named Christmas. Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs has 16 teams playing in eight series, which means as many as four games a night. All you need is a 12-pack of PBR and a pair of Depends, and there's zero reason to leave the couch.
That said, this year’s Round 1 has also had plenty of story threads to get upset about. Besides, that is, that the Washington Capitals appear to be shitting the bed once again.
Here are five of them. Go Caps!!
It’s a song that the NHL has been singing ever since it pledged to finally do something about the clutching, grabbing, and holding that made Mario Lemieux wonder why he bothered playing hockey. You know, the one where they send a pre-playoff message to players, coaches, fans, and the hospital patients and shut-ins who can’t make it out to the game. The promise goes something like this: instead of swallowing their whistles while teams beat the living shit out of each other in the playoffs, referees will be calling games just like they do in the regular season.
And every year it doesn’t happen. Which, as maddening as it might be to watch players hack, whack, chop, and punch each other with impunity, makes for great fucking hockey.
At their best, the playoffs are all about Sean Connery’s timeless quote in The Untouchables: “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” And nothing raises the temperature of a game to the boiling point like seeing obvious penalties completely ignored in the interest of game management. Hello, original Battle of Alberta.
In a The Athletic story last week, Pierre LeBrun noted that 99 penalties had been called in the first 17 games of the 2021 playoffs, and 133 in the first 16 this year. The message then has been clear: unlike past years, you’re going to be punished for playing playoff hockey the way that playoff hockey has always been played.
No more Battle of Alberta rules. No more watching Eric Cairns beat the snot out of Shayne Corson. No more watching Nazem Kadri do something stupid because that’s what he always does. And no settling the score once one team gets a three-goal lead with 10 minutes left in the third.
For the first time since, well, ever, the first round of the playoffs look remarkably civilized, with scrums almost non-existent, games-within-the-game pretty much absent, and suspensions (real or deserved) almost completely removed from the conversation. Which is to say that Round 1 looks like the Montreal Canadiens vs The Russian Red Army on New Year’s Eve in 1979. As your grandparents will tell you, that game was one of the most famously beautiful displays of hockey ever seen. But it wasn’t a war. And when it comes to the playoffs—especially Round 1—it’s the wars we all remember.
There’s an old saying that everyone deserves a second chance. Or in the case of Evander Kane, nine lives worth of second chances. Ask yourself this: who is famous for compiling a rap sheet that includes high-profile allegations of infidelity and gambling? Who fakes a COVID-19 test while playing in one of the world's most high-profile professional sports leagues. Who has a history of pissing off his teammates, to the point where Dustin Byfuglien famously threw Evander Kane’s clothes in the shower after he showed up at the rink in a track suit instead of a suit?
Hockey is a sport that places a premium on humility and respect for the game. After being shown the door by the San Jose Sharks for his COVID-19 hijinks, betting was high that Kane was done in the NHL. Next stop Europe, and don’t forget to say hello to Jake Virtanen.
Instead, he’s now tied for fifth in Round 1 scoring with Sidney Crosby, and proving an invaluable piece of an Edmonton Oilers team famous for flaming out in previous years.
Somehow even more offensively, he’s been all about the swagger and showboating this Round 1, as evidenced yesterday by his flashing seven fingers at Los Angeles fans after the Oilers forced a Game 7.
Seriously, you’ve been given another chance. Again. Do you have to remind us all you don't deserve it? And where’s Dustin Byfuglien when you need him?
Toronto Maple Leafs
If the first round of this year’s 2022 playoffs didn’t suck, the Toronto Maple Leafs would already be holding their exit interviews after being bounced in four straight. One of the most cursed, and obnoxiously entitled, franchises in the NHL hasn’t won a first-round series since 2004, and all of Canada is breathlessly waiting for history to repeat itself this year.
Nothing unites this country like watching the Maple Laffs and their idiot fans being eliminated in Round 1. Honestly, it could easily be a national holiday.
Remember game seven in 2013 when Toronto led the Boston Bruins 4-1 with 10 minutes left in the game? And when Boston then rallied with three goals—two in 31 seconds as the clock wound down—before delivering the knockout elimination punch at 6:05 of overtime. That, hockey fans, is a golden hockey memory right up there with Paul Henderson defeating the Russians in ’72.
As for this year, Toronto’s still ostensibly in the home-ice driver’s seat in its series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, which is tied 3-3 and headed back to Scotiabank Arena in the Centre of the Universe. You can argue that there is no hockey God—if there was, the NHL wouldn’t have completely screwed long-suffering Vancouver Canucks fans in 2011 with a suspension that helped change the Finals series against Boston.
But don’t let that stop you from praying. Because really, can you conceive of anything sweeter than Toronto leading Tampa Bay 4-1 with 10 minutes left in the third, only to shit the bed with a minute left, and then lose at 6:05 of overtime? Of course you can’t. Get ready to celebrate Canada.
Toronto Maple Leafs (Again)/Calgary Flames/Edmonton Oilers
It’s bad enough that all three of those teams made the playoffs this year, and even worse that they’re all still playing instead of wondering what went wrong. Again. Which they’ll, if past years are any indication, be doing this time next week.
Somewhere along the line someone got the idiotic idea that, because you live in Canada, you’re expected to vote for Canadian teams in the playoffs.
You know who in Canada wanted Vancouver to win the Stanley Cup in 2011? That would be the people of Vancouver. Everyone else in the rest of the country was busy letting their fellow Twitter users know how much they hated Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows. Who, by that point, had long perfected the art of playoff trash talking.
If you want to root for Canadians in Round 1, you’d best invest in a St. Louis Blues jersey.
The Blues had a league-leading 17 Great White North-born players on its roster at the beginning of the season. The Flames had 10 and the Edmonton Oilers had 15. As for the Leafs—actually, who gives a shit about Toronto, other than people from Toronto, which is to say every second person living in Vancouver.
We see you making dicks of yourselves in the stands every time the Maple Leafs play Vancouver at Rogers Arena. On that note, for some reason we’re supposed to be okay with 4:30 Pacific puck-drops to make those still trapped in Toronto happy. So fuck the Maple Leafs, not to mention Cowtown and Oil Country. And go St. Louis, the true Canadian capital of the NHL.
Why can’t someone kill him? Not literally kill him—no one wants that on their conscience, and Brad Marchand probably has someone that loves him at home. Or at least tolerates him. But more kill him in the same way that the Charlestown Chiefs trainer screams “Kill ’em!! Kill the bastard!!!” the first time the Hanson brothers take to the ice in Slap Shot.
As much as it pains me to write this, I’ve actually come to, on some level, respect the NHL’s most maddening agitator. Not enough to make peace with his speedbagging Daniel Sedin in the 2011 Cup Finals while Clueless Kelly Sutherland watched. Or low-bridging Sami Salo in a rematch in Boston the following January. Or the face-licking, scrum-jabbing, and general flaming dinkdom.
On the flipside, number 63 off the ice is a guy who regularly plays street hockey with the kids of Jimmy Hayes, a former teammate who died of a drug overdose last year. Who thinks up thoughtful Christmas gifts for teammates. And who, earlier this year, not only sent an autographed jersey to a Cape Breton First Nations teen who’d been subjected to racial slurs during a game, but translated a message for the young player into Mi’kmaw.
If we can extrapolate something from such actions, it’s that Marchand is in some ways playing a character on the ice, and that character happens to wear a black hat. Either you get the joke, or you don’t.
As for how Marchand has been doing his part to ensure that the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs blows donkey dicks, coming into the series against the Carolina Hurricanes he had one goal in 13 games, the lone one being an empty netter. As of this morning, he was second in scoring only to Connor McDavid, including a five-point outing in Game 4. In yesterday’s game, where Boston were facing elimination, he opened the scoring, got the primary assist on the second goal, and then capped the night with a four-minute penalty for spearing.
Yes, that’s right, spearing, which is about the most assholish thing you can do in a game this side of low-bridging, slew-footing, or licking someone’s face. Why can’t someone kill him? Which is to say not literally kill him, but to do something like this...
....while the trainer yells “Kill’ em. Kill the bastard” from the bench. Or, even better, this.....