Not All Playoffs Are Alike

I have always felt the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs were the most compelling series of all sports.

The NFL playoffs and Super Bowl are about winning one game. So are the college football championships, and of course, the one-and-done aspect of the NCAA basketball tournament.

But when it comes to a series when two teams battle to see who gets to four victories first, nothing, and that includes the NBA which played a major role in my career, is quite like post-season hockey.

My feeling has always been that home court, or home ice advantage goes only so far, that the team that plays better in each game will survive regardless of the venue.

It is particularly evident in hockey in my view. I am constantly impressed with the outright hustle and determination I see during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

This year’s, Cup Final  was one for the books.

To me, it wasn’t as much about one particular player or statistics, or even how a team played, but more about what could have gone on mentally for both teams to reach the crescendo they reached in what was a thrilling seven-game climax.

By now, it is no secret the Florida Panthers won their first Stanley Cup edging the Edmonton Oilers 2-1 in the deciding game in Florida.

The entire series was a study in ebb and flow, momentum and then none, one-sided episodes and then, ultimate drama. It had it all. It’s worth looking back.

In the east, the Panthers, who had known futility for years, had become a power.

Last season, they reached the Cup Finals only to lose to Vegas, who whipped them in five games.

So often, it is said about the losing team in a championship, that they’ll be back.

It doesn’t work that way.

Sometimes you get your shot, and if you fall short, that’s as close as it comes.

So there was no guarantee.

Out west, the Oilers  had the fourth best record, but wound up being the team to challenge for a a Stanley Cup title they won five times, dominating the sport in the 1980’s.

But they hadn’t won it all since the ‘89-‘90 season, and no team from Canada, where the sport originated, had captured the Cup in 31 years.

Final scores of contests are often trumpeted, but with empty-net goals scored at the end of games, and other considerations, the score is secondary to simply winning the game.

When the Panthers won the opener at home, 3-0, it indicated that their brilliant goal-tender, Sergei Bobrovsky, might be at the top of his game, and bode well for Florida’s success.

The Panthers won the first three games of the series, winning both at home, and then taking the third game in Edmonton.

In a seven-game series, a 3-0 lead amounts to a sure thing. Not so fast, sailor!

When you are up 3-0 and need to win only one more, you are riding high. You have “momentum”, which will be discussed, and you are free-wheeling. Everything’s going your way.

When you trail by that margin, you have no room, no margin-for-error, you are cornered and you are desperate.

That’s what the Oilers were.

But somehow, they responded. Obviously not wanting to go down before their loyal and raucous fans, they avoided a sweep by trouncing the Panthers 8-1.

What is the only significance of the score was the fact that it’s easier to put a rout behind you than losing a game, that in your heart, you felt and knew, you could win.

Now, the Panthers were going home to win the Cup in front of their fans.

What could be a better scenario?

There was no real negative in Florida dropping game four. Sweeping a good team is always difficult to do, and try as they might, it is hard to have the mindset that game four is crucial.

The key game, other than the deciding seventh, was the fifth one in south Florida.

Instead of ending it in five, before the friendly fans, the Oilers extended the series by winning its second in a row.

This next segment is for the dyed-in-the-wool hockey fans reading this.

The Panthers with a forechecking, aggressive style when the puck was in the Oilers zone, took hold in the early games.

That, and an alert defense in front of a truly great goalie, gave Florida that superior look.

But the Panthers inability to score on power plays, when they had a man advantage, started to take its toll. In fact, the Oilers, with two goals playing short-handed, were better than the Panthers when they had a man edge.

That, and Edmonton’s ability to use their speed in scoring on many breakaway situations after Florida turnovers in the neutral zone, put them squarely back in the series.

Now, the Oilers were going back to the friendly confines of western Canada with a chance to even the series at 3-apiece. For you momentum lovers, the Oilers had it.

And they delivered. Impressively winning with relative ease.

In sports, fortunes turn on a dime. Subconsciously, the team that has rallied, now is playing with a more free-wheeling confidence, while the team that has seemingly lost its “mojo” is searching to regain what it had to dominate early in the series.

Now, it came down to one game.

What did it matter that the Panthers were back home?

They had a chance in the fifth game, only to lose.

The Oilers proved they could win on the road, and they appeared to have things their way.

So what really counts when it’s one game for the world championship?

Never having been part of being in any situation of its kind in my life, I can only try to put myself in what the thoughts might be.

For the Oilers, they have to believe that what they’re doing is working and let’s do it one more time.

For the Panthers, they have to think that now they are the desperate team.

The pressure unquestionably is on them.

I believe that you go into the game determined to hustle and play aggressively the way you know you can play, never thinking of the scenario, which I believe players don’t dwell on, way fans and media do.

Of course, you know the Panthers prevailed 2-1 in a thrilling, “scintillating” fight, the way outstandingly competent play-by-play man Sean McDonough called it, and survived to win the Stanley Cup.

For you momentum lovers, where was it for the Panthers who won the first three games.

And where was it for the Oilers who took the next three?

It’s always about the team that plays better in the game that’s being played that decides the winner.

The Oilers had an opportunity to rally from a 3-0 deficit to win it all for the first time since 1942, when the Toronto Maple Leafs managed that Herculean feat.

We’ve seen it in baseball when the Red Sox came back to beat the Yankees in 2004.

We’ve never seen it in the NBA Finals.

We didn’t see a Canadian team win the Cup, so now it’s 32 years.

We did see the Florida Panthers capture their first Stanley Cup and also the first for their coach Paul Maurice, in his 26th year as a head coach, the most seasons coached for a first-time champion.

It was Maurice who had two poignant comments after the finish.

He said his team need to lose three to learn how to win the fourth.;

And he gave credit to the players who were part of last year’s squad which fell short, but were no longer on the championship roster.  A class move.

This year’s Stanley Cup final was one of the great sport finishes I’ve ever seen.

The sport delivered in its usual exciting manner in a special way.

But it was the mindset of the teams as the series moved along that grabbed me.

It was one I won’t soon forget.