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The first Stanley Cup playoff axiom is that you have to bury your chances, which, when you think about it, is precisely what veteran Tampa Bay center Tim Taylor did. At the conclusion of the Lightning-Senators playoff opener in Ottawa last Friday, Taylor scooped up the puck and absconded to the dressing room, spoiling Senators winger Vaclav Varada's plan to present it to Ray Emery in honor of the goalie's first playoff win. Once inside the Tampa Bay sanctuary, Taylor chucked the puck into a garbage can, later declining to identify its final resting place but intimating that the puck had wound up somewhere it would never be found. � Not that Emery had an axiom to grind--"I won't lose any sleep over it, but it wasn't the classiest move," he said--but in the utterly passionate world of the NHL playoffs, you can win the game ( Senators 4, Lightning 1) and have the other team do the trashing. � "You're doing everything you can to not make the other team happy," Taylor said of the endearing and enduring playoff ethos. "If this were the regular season ... I wouldn't have done it. But this is the playoffs. It's all about trying to gain an edge on the other team, trying to piss them off."
After the lockout-induced hiatus--a pity that a dispute over how to divvy up the spoils of a $2.1 billion business ruined the time of year when the game is distilled into a quest for a 36-pound mug--the playoffs came roaring back, a homecoming more profoundly welcome than even some players thought possible. "I really missed it," said Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier. "The intensity. The noise. You step on the ice, the crowd goes crazy. It leaves you with a feeling...." He tapped his chest.
Lecavalier's teammate Brad Richards said that "the year away made it even more meaningful. At least for me. It seems somehow bigger." The sentiment was echoed by winger Kirk Maltby (box, page 58) before his Detroit Red Wings split Games 1 and 2 with the Edmonton Oilers. "It's about time," said Maltby. "After that layoff, even with as much experience as we have, everyone in this dressing room is like a kid, excited to get this going."
The first face-offs were in Ottawa and Detroit at 7:12 p.m., although the unofficial commencement occurred two minutes earlier when an octopus landed on the ice with a splat during The Star-Spangled Banner at the Wings' Joe Louis Arena. Nothing screams "playoffs" like a cephalopod. (The Red Wings' tradition began in 1952 when two fishmongers realized that the number of tentacles on an octopus matched the number of wins then necessary to win the Stanley Cup.) Octopus-tossing is officially proscribed, but arena superintendent Al Sobotka tacitly encourages it by twirling octopuses over his head as he chugs off the ice after cleaning them up. In this year's playoff innovation, some Oilers fans threw hunks of prime Alberta beef onto the ice in response.
Two octopuses rained down that first night, equaling the number of fights that unfolded through the first 12 playoff games. The sight of enforcers such as the New York Rangers' Colton Orr and the Senators' Brian McGrattan in civvies was another welcome sign of hockey's spring, the playoffs being too important to allow one-dimensional ruffians to practice their dark arts. The playoffs are left in softer hands, some of them belonging to vice presidents of marketing.
Apparently the second Stanley Cup playoff axiom--at least this year, amid an intensified urge to appeal to a public jilted by the lockout--is that you can't win without a slogan. The New Jersey Devils offered a banner reading TEAM DISCIPLINE INTENSITY TRADITION, a motto as sober-minded as C-Span. The defending-champ Lightning tried the more upbeat BACK 2 BACK BELIEVER (that, even though coach John Tortorella has suggested that Tampa had won the last Cup in "the Ice Age"). Ottawa, meanwhile, trotted out a REV UP THE RED campaign, a crimson-hued motif that long has been favored in Calgary and Detroit. The Red Wings chose the more direct BRING IT!, presumably not referring to octopuses.
A leaguewide slogan might have been a more prosaic Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. After commissioner Gary Bettman's admonition that any referee who failed to crack down on obstruction during the playoffs--a time when many infractions have traditionally been overlooked--would be sent home for the summer, there were an average of 15.4 penalties per game through Sunday. That's 4.4 more than the average for the 2004 playoffs.
The refs called penalties often, they called them late-- Philadelphia weathered three power plays in the first overtime in its 3-2 double-OT loss to Buffalo in Game 1--and they called them in clumps. There were 12 five-on-threes in those first 12 matches. The penalty glut gave New Jersey a team-record 13 opportunities in a 6-1 opening win over the Rangers (five Devils goals came with a man advantage) and accounted for five of the seven goals in the Nashville Predators' 4-3 Game 1 win over the San Jose Sharks.
In Ottawa the refs' vigilance helped the heavily favored Senators score three goals--two on the power play--in less than 3 1/2 minutes to overcome a 1-0 deficit in Game 1. By Sunday night, though, the resilient Lightning had evened the series at 1-1, and the specter of an upset, yet another compelling hallmark of the NHL postseason, loomed.
These are the 2006 hockey playoffs, renewed and improved: The bloom is on the rose, the goons are in the stands and, to quote the Devils, it remains the province of team, discipline, intensity and tradition. Garbage time? Hardly.