One thing you can figure into every playoff season is the impact of injuries. Adding to the intrigue is the secrecy surrounding the nature of an injury and whether a player is available on any given night. In the Eastern Conference series between the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the emerging storylines heading into Monday night's Game 6 in Montreal is the status of several Habs' blueliners.
Hal Gill remained in Pittsburgh after leaving Game 5 in the third period to get medical attention for a cut on the back of his leg. The injury occurred when Chris Kunitz inadvertently came down on the back of Gill's leg with a stepping motion as the two tangled along the boards. Gill and partner Josh Gorges have shut down Sidney Crosby so effectively that the prospect of losing Gill is a huge issue for the Canadiens.
The Canadiens had already lost their top defenseman, Andrei Markov, in Game 1 to a reported torn ACL and have been without Jaroslav Spacek since Game 3 of the first round due to a vaguely reported inner ear infection. Throw in Paul Mara's season-ending shoulder injury late in the regular schedule and suddenly the Canadiens were facing the prospect of staving off elimination without the services of four of their top six defensemen.
Rookie PK Subban has stepped in and played admirably -- another playoff staple being a youngster making a name for himself for the first time during the playoffs -- but there's more. Markov and Mara skated lightly yesterday at the Canadiens' practice facility. Spacek spoke to reporters for the first time and appeared ready to go. And Gill commented before leaving Pittsburgh that he is hopeful to play in Game 6. All are glimmers of hope shining through the clouds of injury secrecy.
Of course, if Spacek and Gill play, it will be just another heroic effort by banged-up players at playoff time. That is a long-standing given in our sport that adds to the compelling nature of playoff hockey and heightens the sense of sacrifice required to hoist the Stanley Cup. Out of that mindset, the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers have two examples of storybook endings. First, Marc Savard scores the winning goal in overtime of Game 1 after missing two months due to a concussion. Then Simon Gagne comes back from a broken toe -- with his Flyers facing elimination -- to do exactly the same thing in Game 4. Philadelphia will have to fight valiantly and against long odds the rest of the way, but such is the stuff of springtime legend.
Speaking of valor and long odds, in Chicago on Sunday night, the Blackhawks had a chance to close out the Canucks, who had lost three straight in self-destructive fashion. Vancouver had lacked discipline and goaltender Roberto Luongo had struggled mightily, with two losses coming on home ice. Done, right? Not so fast. Luongo turned in his best game of the postseason, controlling his rebounds and playing under control from the outset. His teammates staked him to an early lead by getting net-front presence to make life difficult for goaltender Antti Niemi. Defenseman Kevin Bieksa was an unlikely star, providing two unexpected goals after scoring all of three during the regular season And most importantly, the Canucks stuck to business, disregarding the post-whistle taunts of the Blackhawks.
In short, the Canucks looked like the team that won handily in Chicago in Game 1. Can they carry that form forward? Certainly. Will they? That hasn't been easy to gauge this spring. They fell behind in the first round 2-1 before reeling off three straight wins to eliminate the Kings. Down 3-2, they will have to do it again without defenseman Sami Salo, who was hospitalized after blocking a shot in Game 5. They will also have to come through on home ice for the first time in the series, as the road team has won four of the first five games in this series. Go figure.
And how about the San Jose Sharks, who lost Game 4 in Detroit in blowout fashion, raising the specter of their past postseason failures yet again? In Game 5 two nights later, they played with poise and confidence that had little to do with the past and everything to do with the task at hand. Predictable? Probably not. But goaltender Evgeni Nabokov played with supreme confidence in bouncing back after his rough outing the prior game. He backstopped a complete effort by the Sharks that offered one more piece of proof that they are finally, this year, ready to compete for the Western Conference crown.
So while the storylines ebb and flow in a 48-hour cycle, one thing remains constant: the effort expended is valiant, with a hero -- simply born out of an unfathomable willingness to help his team -- waiting in the wings.
Now that's playoff hockey.