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Kyle Wellwood has been a marked man in the playoffs. The Canucks center was marked above his left eyebrow, taking five stitches, because of a high stick from the Blackhawks' Andrew Ladd early in Game 1 of the second-round Chicago-Vancouver series. One period later Wellwood was marked again when Patrick Kane inadvertently sliced his lips with his stick—a blow that also cost Wellwood part of a tooth, which a trainer wrapped in gauze while trying to stanch a Wepnerian flow of blood. After the game, in which Wellwood had two assists and made the breakout pass on the four-on-one that led to Vancouver's winning goal in the final 75 seconds, coach Alain Vigneault remarked that the downy-cheeked 26-year-old at least now looks a little like a hockey player. "I wasn't sure if he was commenting on my on-ice production," Wellwood said on the telephone a few days later, "or my facial scar."
Excoriated by Vigneault for subpar conditioning and briefly demoted to the minors last October, Wellwood—slurred by some fans as Wellfed—has the reputation of being a quart low in the grit department. But in the spring even Wellwood has a wellspring of determination. All players soldier on for a reason both simple and profound: The playoffs are encoded in a hockey player's genes, seared into his soul.
This is still hockey, the same as in the 82-game regular season. Six a side. Twenty players dress. The arenas have not changed, even if the crowd now waves orange towels in Anaheim or wears wedding-gown white in Pittsburgh or whips itself into a froth when Hurricanes fan and former Steelers coach Bill Cowher cranks a siren before games in Carolina. (All of this fan frenzy falls within the broad parameters of postseason hockey normality, unlike the message-board death threat against Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin posted by a Pennsylvania teen during Washington's series against Pittsburgh last week.) Despite some added forbearance for postwhistle milling, even the officiating is relatively unchanged in the playoffs. Yet while everything is more or less the same, nothing seems to be.
"The playoffs are to the regular season what cream filling is to the Twinkie," says Ducks enforcer George Parros, a Princeton man who probably aced the analogy section on the SATs. "It's a smaller portion of the whole, but it's the tastiest part." There is a surfeit in the playoffs: more face washes, more elbows in the corners, more scrums, more minutes because of overtime, more vitriol, more gamesmanship, more subterfuge and more startling moments of revelation.
"You get a sense of how good a team you really have," says Wellwood. "Playing the same team over and over, you try to exploit a weakness. And you can't be that weakness on your team."
The familiarity between teams during a series can breed contempt, such as that between Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara and Carolina center Eric Staal, who hammered at each other in round 2. "I take these challenges to the bottom of my heart," says Chara.
Through the alchemy of the playoffs the notorious "man's game" also takes on a whiff of childhood. "When you score goals as a kid," says Erik Cole, the Carolina right wing, "it's not because you want a contract but because you want to win the Stanley Cup." Although a champion's reputation might increase his market value, and although Red Wings players made a bonus of roughly $90,000 each after Detroit's run to the Cup last year, the two-month slog is not about dollars but innocence. Like Little Leaguers, teams are playing for the trophy at the end of the year. This trophy just happens to be about three feet high and weigh 35 pounds.
"One of my family members read a blog to me that [said] it was the wrong move for [G.M. Ray] Shero to remove the 'interim' tag because it would remove my motivation to win the Stanley Cup," says Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who got the job permanently after Pittsburgh's first-round win. "I just about swerved off the road, because there couldn't be greater motivation for any player or coach than a championship. There's a badge of honor in the playoffs when you see your teammates go through the hardships."
Standing at his dressing-room stall before Game 3 of Chicago's series against Vancouver, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was asked about reports that one of his shoulders was so damaged that he couldn't raise his arm above his head. Toews, usually more serious than the Congressional Quarterly, grinned and began moving his arms as if he were doing the funky chicken. This may not have been the biggest playoff flap—Detroit coach Mike Babcock chafed after Marian Hossa's apparent tying goal late in Game 3 against Anaheim was waved off—but was certainly the most original. Toews might indeed have been suffering from an "upper-body injury," to borrow from the official NHL glossary, or maybe an inner-body injury. (Word was circulating that he was out of sorts because of the flu, a dubious explanation but a difficult malaise for Canucks players to zero in on unless they were to join the CDC.) Toews, however, was giving nothing away, and he ignored a further invitation to raise his arms; the playoffs are not Simon Says.
"There are guys on these teams who are lying about injuries," Hurricanes winger Chad LaRose says. "They're even lying to their own team doctors. Sure, the doc knows something's wrong, but maybe you tell him symptoms that are a little different than they really are so you can keep playing."