That's what the playoffs are—a little bit about winning and a whole bunch about surviving.
—KEN HITCHCOCK, Dallas Stars coach
Colorado Avalanche defenseman Raymond Bourque returned to the Stanley Cup playoff wars for Game 3 of the Western Conference finals last Friday, a brace on his left knee, a bull's-eye on his back. The Dallas Stars were going to dump the puck into his corner and then take shots at him. The theory was sound, the execution abysmal. The 39-year-old Bourque, who hadn't played in 18 days, was barely mussed by Dallas as he gamboled for a coltish 35 minutes, 35 seconds—more than seven minutes longer than any other skater in the game. He was on the ice for the last 2:40, and while he didn't need a line change, he did need to switch gloves. The meticulous Bourque exchanged his soggy ones for a dry pair before a face-off with 26.3 seconds left in Colorado's 2-0 victory, which gave the Avalanche a 2-1 series lead.
The performance was as typical for Bourque as it was inspirational for Colorado. The Avalanche had won despite the absence of defenseman Adam Foote, Bourque's physically imposing partner who had sustained a severe cut around his right eye in Game 2 four nights earlier. Bourque and Foote formed the NHL's best defense pair after Bourque was acquired by Colorado in March, and their injuries forced the Avalanche to finesse four wins in the five games that they didn't play together. "Ray hasn't played in more than two weeks, and to step in and perform the way he did in those circumstances was amazing," says Colorado left wing Shjon Podein, who earned a goal and a five-stitch zipper above his left eye in Game 3—a souvenir of trifling consequence at a time when everybody gives at the office. "But that's what you have to rely on in the playoffs. In the regular season you need all 20 guys going. In the playoffs it seems like you need 25, 26, whatever."
Colorado had several guys rise to the occasion, including defenseman Aaron Miller, who was playing with a surgically repaired broken jaw sustained at the end of the regular season; rookie defenseman Martin Skoula, who stepped up to the first unit in place of Bourque and then Foote; and one high-stepping woman. A Tina Turner concert fortuitously scheduled for Denver's Pepsi Center on May 17 delayed the series by two days, stalling Dallas's momentum after it knotted the series with a win in Game 2 and giving Bourque additional time to recover from a strained knee.
The 2000 playoffs, like many postseasons before them, have become a war of attrition, a last-man-standing battle that has put the win back in Darwinian. If the fittest were not guaranteed survival, the teams with the most finely honed survival skills would advance. The battered Avalanche was tied with the merely dented Stars following a 4-1 Dallas win in Game 4 on Sunday; the lumpy, discolored Philadelphia Flyers were holding off the healthier New Jersey Devils three games to two in the Eastern Conference finals after the Devils avoided elimination with a 4-1 victory on Monday. The requisite postseason survival skills are luck (as in avoiding injury, a Tina Turner concert date and Craig Berube's deflection for the Flyers' game-winning goal in Game 4), depth (the 1994 New York Rangers were the last team to negotiate the tricky path to a Stanley Cup with a short bench) and courage. "It's all about will," says Dallas center Guy Carbonneau, an 18-year veteran who has been playing with a removable cast to protect the right wrist he broke in early March. "Obviously what it comes down to is if you battle enough, the other team might quit. There are times in the playoffs when you ask yourself, Why do I keep doing this? Maybe we should lose and go home. Everybody has that in the back of his mind at some point. I'm sure in that five-overtime game [between Philadelphia and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round] somebody was thinking, 'As much as I want our team to win, please somebody score so I can get out of here.' This is a long haul. You're going to get banged up. With the size and speed of the guys and with the [unforgiving] seamless glass, it hurts more now. With the pressure of winning, guys are more inclined to hit. Years ago two or three guys would be doing the hitting. Now the whole team has to play that way."
"Before the playoffs start, all teams talk about the fact that you're going to lose players to injuries," says New Jersey captain Scott Stevens, who caused Flyers center Daymond Langkow to suffer a concussion in Game 2 with a vicious but clean open-ice hit. (Langkow missed Games 3 and 4.) "The tempo's faster. It's more physical. More hitting. In return, more people get hurt."
The quest for hockey's Holy Grail bears a striking similarity to Monty Python's, at least in regard to injuries: If the teams' spokesmen are to be believed, the carnage amounts to only a flesh wound. Of course, the almost comic double-talk about injuries—for example, before Game 3 between the Stars and the Avalanche, Hitchcock held winger Jamie Langenbrunner out of a practice because of an injury he described as "something minor between his waist and head"—doesn't lessen the actual toll. Dallas and New Jersey both lost feisty, significant rookies in the conference finals: The Stars' first-line left wing, Brenden Morrow, suffered a chipped right ankle late in Game 1 that sidelined him for two matches, and the Devils' supreme penalty killer, center John Madden, sustained a right knee injury after colliding with Philadelphia's Keith Primeau in Game 2. But the team most under siege was the Flyers, who seemed to have grown more powerful as their physical state eroded. Trainer John Worley got more ice time than some fourth liners, but it has yet to matter. The players, bonded by their misfortune, play like Ray Nitschke and think like Friedrich Nietzsche: Whatever doesn't kill them makes them stronger.
Primeau has become Philly's rallying point. While deposed captain Eric Lindros hasn't played in more than two months because of postconcussion syndrome, Primeau returned, either courageously or foolishly, to start the conference finals five days after having been wheeled off the ice in Pittsburgh. Primeau suffered a concussion when he was steamrollered by Penguins defenseman Bob Boughner in Game 6 of the second round, a clean check at center ice.
With the exception of his nifty goal over the shoulder of Pittsburgh goalie Ron Tugnutt to end the five-overtime Game 4 marathon, the playoffs hadn't been kind to Primeau until the Eastern finals. His first postseason with Philadelphia had been a jumble of lost face-offs, soft defensive coverage, missed open nets and bungled passes to wingers John LeClair and Mark Recchi. After seven games Primeau was demoted from the first line and replaced by Langkow. The 6'5", 230-pound Primeau looked as if he might be hockey's equivalent of Von Hayes or Shawn Bradley, another oversized Philadelphia athlete destined to be a disappointment. Then came Boughner's hit. The victim crumpled like Keith Primeau but returned like Gordie Howe.
After taking a baseline neuropsychological test three days before the start of the New Jersey series—"I studied by looking at my daughter's connect-the-dots book," a smiling Primeau says—he played Game 1, a 4-1 Devils win, with no noticeable aftereffects of the concussion, either on the scoreboard or to his synapses. Then in Game 2, a 4-3 Flyers victory, Primeau engaged tough Devils winger Randy McKay in a fight. The fisticuffs may have permanently disqualified Primeau from a Mensa membership but have eternally endeared him to his teammates. "He's shown a lot of guys how tough he is and what a competitor he is," LeClair said last Friday. "His playing did a lot for this team. When you see what he went through, putting his neck on the line, the guys respect that."