Darren Eliot
Monday April 14th, 2008

The first five days of the NHL playoffs saw me in four different cities covering one game in each Eastern Conference series for Versus. That unique opportunity allowed me to experience the packed-house atmosphere and get a feel for the mood in the various home team markets.

In Pittsburgh, the Penguins' faithful is emboldened by the fact that they know they have a fine collection of young talent. Their anticipation is that the Sidney Crosby - Evgeni Malkin-led Penguins are capable of doing something special this spring and for many seasons to come. As my cabbie said on the way in from the airport, "Hey, we've got the Kid." Somehow that simple statement encapsulated the city's mindset.

In the nation's capitol the atmosphere was more of rapture than anything else. The Capitals are experiencing an embrace not felt for a long, long time in these parts. The locals have adopted this team as the one of the moment since Alex Ovechkin signed his 13-year megadeal in January and led a charge to the playoffs that captured everyone's imagination.

On this night Ovechkin scored the game-winning goal in dramatic fashion and his patented glass-rattling celebratory leap sent the red-clad patrons into a frenzy followed by the capacity crowd chanting "MVP" in unison. Outside the Verizon Center euphoric fans reliving the moment filled the streets, as the traffic inched by, horns blaring in recognition of the Capitals' return to the sports landscape. I think I even recognized the much-coveted and ever-elusive "casual" fan joining in and making it official: They are having fun in Washington.

In Montreal I was really taken by how genuinely optimistic the city is about this young team. Don't get me wrong. The Habs did lead the Eastern Conference in points and have been consistent all season long, avoiding the lengthy losing skids that plagued every other team at some point over the course of the regular schedule. Still, with the most storied of NHL franchises, this city's expectations for its beloved Canadiens can sometimes bring a claustrophobic sense of entitlement to the proceedings.

Not this time around.

The team's precise play has drawn in the passionate locals. The Canadiens skate swiftly, pass crisply and in these parts are "a joy to watch," as one old-timer told me. The fact that this team has a core of young players around which to build only adds to the allure. There is a sense that this team is going to be there for the foreseeable future and that Carey Price in goal will be the difference-maker at the game's most critical position. The fact that he and the rest are only going to get better has Canadiens fans fired up.

By the time I got to New York City the Rangers already had a 2-0 lead on their cross-bridge rivals, the New Jersey Devils. The denizens of MSG did what they typically do: collectively wear their hearts on their sleeves. Every twist and turn of Sunday night's Game 3 was accompanied by boos, cheers, cat calls, moans, groans -- whatever the gathering felt as it pertained to their beloved Blueshirts. When the Devils' John Madden bounced one in off defenseman Marc Staalin in overtime, the entire group fell silent. Tough luck met with a heartfelt tough love response.

Filing out, one guy turned to his buddy and said, "It's a series now," to which his buddy replied, "It's all right, we weren't going to sweep anyway. We'll get 'em Wednesday." That sentiment summed up New York City's patented energy source -- realism and optimism -- constantly on display at the same time.

As I thought about it, that dynamic was evident in each of the four first-round series in the Eastern Conference.

Talk about compelling... and it's only week one.

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