Posted: Tue April 30, 2013 10:25AM; Updated: Tue April 30, 2013 4:52PM
Stu Hackel

No sure things in NHL playoffs, where upsets are the norm

NHL playoff upsets (continued)

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Jonathan Toews and Evgeni Malkin
As good as the Blackhawks and Penguins are, a lot must go right for them to face off for the Cup.
Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI

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The Stanley Cup championship is a long, hard two-month road, the most difficult championship to win in all of sports. The playoffs are not the same as the regular season, regardless of the length of the schedule. Once the second season begins, the pace quickens, the decisions must be faster, the physical intensity rises, special attention gets paid to the opposition's top players and more discipline is needed in all areas. Letting up for even a shift can be a team's undoing. That's what makes playoff hockey the best competition in pro sports.

Some people have looked at how the regular season progressed, with domination by the Blackhawks in the West and the Penguins in the East, and assumed that we'll be seeing Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane battling Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in an inevitable Chicago-Pittsburgh Cup final. Could be. Maybe not.

Those teams had best beware of the dreaded No. 1 vs. 8 first round matchup, which can prove deadly to the top-seeded team in either conference. In the 18 seasons since the NHL adopted the Nos. 1-8 seeding, a top team has fallen to an eighth-seeded club 11 times. That means in 61 percent of the playoff years, one of the top-seeded teams has been knocked out in the first round.

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The possibility of upsets is one of the things that makes the first round of the playoffs so compelling -- and it's not just the No. 1 seeds that are in peril. In fact, better than one third of all recent first-round series have ended in upsets. During the 11 seasons since the NHL went to 30 clubs in 2001, we've witnessed 31 out of 88 first round series in which a team with an inferior record has taken down an opponent that had a stronger regular season. That averages out to almost three first-round series upsets per year.

In 2006, four top teams were ambushed in the first round -- all in the Western Conference, including the Presidents' Trophy-winning Red Wings, who had one of the great 82-game regular seasons ever (124 points). But they lost in six games to the 95-point, eighth-seeded Oilers. That series victory helped propel Edmonton to the Cup final.

GALLERY: Infamous first-round upsets

The last time the NHL played a 48-game season, in 1995, there were also four upsets in the opening round, including the top seed in the East, the Quebec Nordiques, who were dumped in six games by the eighth-seeded New York Rangers.

You may think you know how a series will go, but you really don't know anything until you see how the teams match up when the puck drops. A hot goalie, strong special teams play, a key injury, or someone unexpectedly coming out of nowhere to be a magical, momentary star -- like the Kings' Chris Kontos, who scored nine goals in 11 playoff games in 1989, or the Capitals' John Druce, who scored 14 goals in 15 games in 1990 -- can torpedo your prediction. Anything can happen in the playoffs, especially in the first round. And usually it does, making the enterprise of forecasting winners perilous, if not outright folly.

The truth in the clichés

Upsets are the reason why players, coaches and fans believe that their team can prevail, no matter what their regular season was like. The opening round is where every team comes in believing it has a chance to win the Cup. You hear the clichés all the time. Bruins coach Claude Julien conducted a master class in them after the B's fell to Ottawa on Sunday night in the regular-season finale, telling reporters: "We're starting a new season sometime this week. We've earned a spot in the playoffs and we should be proud of that. There's a lot of teams right now that are doing something different than we're doing and we should be happy about that. And you start from scratch. Everybody has the same record going into the playoffs. Now it's a new season and it's an opportunity for us to challenge for the Cup."

Funny thing about those clichés, however.

There's much truth in them.

Win that first game and it reinforces your belief that your team is on the way. Lose the opener but make adjustments, come back and win the second game and that gets you believing, too. Lose the first two, but come back to win Game 3 and that gives you belief because, after all, teams have rallied from 0-2 to win a series. They've come back from down 1-3. A few have even come back from 0-3. There's a whole lot of believing going on and it doesn't end until you hear the final buzzer for your fourth loss. One team out of the 16 will never hear it, but no team has heard it yet and they all believe they won't.

But if the Stanley Cup playoffs are the best championship in sports and the first round is the best of the best, it also has the potential to be the worst.

Because of increased parity among NHL clubs, especially in the salary cap era, there's often little to distinguish one club from another before the puck is dropped. Another cliché you hear is, "the team that wants it more will win." And that can translate into doing anything -- anything -- on the ice in pursuit of victory.

We saw that last spring when a terrifically competitive first round was badly marred because the rulebook became an afterthought in one of the most brutal and disgraceful weeks of hockey ever witnessed. Although it was only a year ago, the lockout and this compressed season make it feel like ancient history, but the events of last April should not be forgotten.

It began on opening night, April 11, when Nashville's Shea Weber punched and then horse-collared Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg at the game's conclusion, twice ramming his head into the glass.

Weber was handed just a two-minute roughing minor by the referees and the league only fined him $2,500 because Zetterberg was not injured. Weber should have received a major penalty and a suspension, which would have sent a clear message that the NHL won't tolerate such excesses.

From there, it seemed, the tone was set -- "Hudson Bay rules," hockey people used to call it -- as other first-round series spun wildly out of control with sucker punches, maulings, ambushes and head shots galore (which we chronicled here, here, here and here). The Flyers tried to turn their series against the Penguins into a street fight and the Pens gladly obliged. In its lack of discipline, Pittsburgh negated its own strengths as a club and was rewarded with an early exit. Chaos, not the officials, ruled.

The league tried to regain some control as Brendan Shanahan began handing out suspensions. Within the space of five days, eight players were banned for a total of 16 games, but a number of incidents mysteriously still went unpunished.

It all reached a crescendo on April 17 when the Coyotes' Raffi Torres leaped into Chicago's Marian Hossa to deliver a head shot. The Blackhawks star was stretchered off the ice with a concussion and didn't return to action until this season. The league handed Torres, a multiple offender, a 25-game suspension (later reduced to 21) and that seemed to calm things down a bit, although there would be four additional one-game suspensions in May.

Some people tried to excuse the carnage, saying it was just typically rugged playoff hockey. But the apologists were silenced by an overwhelming chorus of objections. The Blues' Andy McDonald told ESPN's Pierre Lebrun, "I just think you watch a game, and is it really better than it was a year or two years ago? Is there less head shots? Certainly the playoffs this year has been a revelation that not much has changed. Guys are still targeting the head and really putting other players in danger and at risk for serious injury. And that's frustrating for a player that's gone through a significant amount of time with that type of injury."

Former Rangers GM Neil Smith, now a television analyst, told Chris Botta of The New York Times, "In all my years of watching the NHL, I've never seen a first round with this many shenanigans and problems for the league."

On Philadelphia radio station 97.5 The Fanatic, Wayne Gretzky said he was surprised by how the playoffs had proceeded. "It's a little bit risqué right now, there's no question," he told Tony Bruno and Harry Mayes. "Emotions are high in every aspect. And if you look at every series right now, each and every team is playing with a little bit of a bite, and yeah it's a little bit surprising. They talk about the Flyers back in the '70s -- guys like Bobby Kelly, Moose Dupont and Dave Schultz -- but you never really saw those guys go after guys like Bobby Orr or Phil Esposito. It was just sort of honest, hard, rough-nosed hockey, and it's changed -- there's no question."

On TSN, Bob McKenzie offered, "I think they have to call more penalties. People are all, 'Oh no, don't do that. Don't ruin the playoffs,' but I mean, it's a little too loosey-goosey and I think it started in the final [in 2011] when you saw the Boston Bruins manhandle Daniel Sedin." McKenzie then showed the infamous incident of Brad Marchand using Sedin's head like a speedbag.

But the voice that made the biggest impact in countering the defenders of the turmoil might have been that of Al Arbour, the Original Six defenseman and Hall of Fame coach who led the Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cups and who was behind the bench during the darkest time in NHL history, the 1970s, when unfettered fighting and intimidation threatened to ruin the sport.

"It surprises me," Arbour told the Associated Press. "Never mind what it was in our day. It's getting carried away. They're getting carried away with everything. They're reckless in what they're doing right now ...Yes, it does bother me. It bothers me a lot."

It bothered me, too. I'm still concerned that the league may allow its first round -- which could be the best hockey of the year -- to degenerate once again into something that isn't in its best interest.

The league wants to market the playoffs as a longer, more emotional and competitive championship than the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Hockey fans don't need to be sold on the virtues of the NHL playoffs, but casual fans and non-fans won't be reached if we witness another physical fiasco.

The league has to make sure that emotions don't get out of hand again by making firm decisions if called for, and doing all it can to discourage an epidemic of over-the-top incidents. A repeat of what occurred during the first round last spring must be avoided.

That way, we can focus on what makes the postseason great: the hockey -- and the upsets.

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