Concussion factor makes playoffs so many games of chance

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In the misspent days of my television-watching youth in the 1950s -- this is so long ago that the remote control consisted of getting off the couch, crossing the room and turning the dial to one of the five other channels -- my favorite show was the after-school classic, The Mickey Mouse Club. (This Disney reference is only tangential to hockey, unlike Wayne Gretzky's 1984 off-the-cuff assessment of the Devils as a Mickey Mouse organization, and, of course, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, but please stick with me.) The show's best day was Wednesday, known as Anything Can Happen Day. It's a memory, like Proust's madeleine, that flooded over me like hot Zamboni water recently during a chat with Predators coach Barry Trotz.

The topic was the coming playoffs and Trotz, currently settling in as a Nashville fixture that ranks somewhere behind the Grand Ole Opry and conspicuous religious faith, suggested that he had never seen a postseason so wide open. In most years, he said, a team or two would have separated from the pack during the regular season -- often Detroit and San Jose in the Western Conference, maybe Chicago in 2010 when it won the Stanley Cup. This spring, nothing.

In Trotz's view, the mere act of qualifying for the playoffs, earning that golden ticket, seemed to give a team almost as good a chance of winning the 35-pound spittoon as the next guy. The coach was on such a roll that it seemed impolitic to mention the Florida Panthers. Still it was difficult to quibble with the thesis.

Minus Annette Funicello and mouse ears, the NHL is poised to offer two-plus months of childhood Wednesdays in this Anything Can Happen spring.

There are so many questions:

• If wards-of-the-league Phoenix, which has not won a playoff series since 1987 when the franchise was in Winnipeg, wins four rounds, does Commissioner Gary Bettman present the Cup to himself?

• If Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo lets in a soft goal in the first period of Game 1 at home against the Kings, will someone need to squeegee his remains out of the blue paint?

• Can NHL CEO John Collins line up the Red Cross as a sponsor for the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia first-round series? Sidney Crosby is a Type A personality, but in this series we might learn if his blood type is O negative.

• Whose brain is going to be rattled first -- and worst?

Anything can happen in this glorious tournament, but one certainly will: a concussion.

Now, a team might choose to call it by another name -- flu-like symptoms is all the rage, an escape hatch from following prescribed NHL concussion protocols -- but the "c" word will enter the playoff equation at some point as surely as beards and stitches. The team with the most key players who can count backwards from 100 by three -- a rudimentary neuropsych test -- without lapsing into Mandarin or Portuguese has a real chance.

Welcome to the Concussion Lottery, 2012.

"There are so many things that have to go right for a team to win," says general manager Ray Shero, whose Penguins were Cup champions in 2009. "It's not necessarily the best team, best player, best goalie or best coach who wins. You have to be lucky, and you have to be healthy. Look at last year. Vancouver essentially ran out of healthy defensemen at the end. And in 2006, Buffalo had a great shot but (lost to Carolina in the Eastern Conference Final because it) wound up out of defensemen in that series, having to rely on a lot of minor league guys."

It is a given in the modern NHL, which is increasingly aware of the concussion scourge but virtually impotent in preventing head injuries, that a team is going to get its bell rung, figuratively, because of the intensity of four rounds of playoff hockey.

The question will be for whom that bell tolls.

This is about timing. Crosby and star defenseman Kris Letang returned from their concussions with enough games remaining in the regular season to reintegrate into the Penguins' lineup. (In Crosby's 14 games back after his most recent head/neck injury, Pittsburgh scored 63 goals.) The formerly concussed Alex Steen, adored in St. Louis and rarely mentioned outside the 314 area code, returned to the Blues with seven games left. He should be a factor as the playoffs crunch-along, especially if St. Louis, the only team that swept its first-roud opponent during the regular season, can nail shut the window of championship opportunity in San Jose.

So many marquee players, so many sheared axons.

(Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, out since Nov. 20 with a head injury that will likely end his career, and Kings winger Simon Gagné, who has a history of concussion and has been shelved since late December, aren't even part of this discussion.)

The Blackhawks seemingly have learned to muddle through without Jonathan Toews, the fulcrum of their team, since the captain sustained a concussion on Feb. 19; Chicago lost just five games in regulation the rest of the season. Still, if he returns in the first round, a possibility, Chicago has an exponentially better chance of beating the Coyotes, who by this point are inured to the uncertainty surrounding their franchise.

Daniel Sedin, concussed by an elbow from Toews' teammate Duncan Keith, is expected to resurface for Vancouver's opener against Los Angeles, but there are no guarantees that his progress will continue in a straight line. With an effective Daniel joining twin Henrik on the top line, the Canucks (assuming Ryan Kesler, who has five points in his last 18 games, lifts his play close to the level of last spring) could again bring out the optimism in a fretful fan base and eventually the riot cops. If Daniel's brain takes a stutter step, the Canucks will struggle to get to the Western final.

Aaron Rome was one of the defenseman the Canucks missed last June because of his four-game suspension for a hit to Nathan Horton's head that prematurely ended the final for both of them. According to Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, Horton is a long shot to come back during this year's playoffs after a 36-game absence caused by yet another concussion, this one sustained with a seemingly innocuous hit on Jan. 22 in Philadelphia. Not coincidentally, Boston's swoon began at about that time.

While Tim Thomas's decision not to attend the Cup dog-and-pony show at the White House did nothing for team unity, the more logical explanation for Boston's slide was that Horton's concussion obliged the Bruins to re-slot players who had been superb in their proper roles. Now Rich Peverley, part of a great third line, has to be a first-line right wing. The delicate balance of 2011, when Horton played with David Krejci and Milan Lucic as Boston tiptoed through a record three seven-game series, was ruined. The Bruins overcame the loss of Horton to concussion in the 2011 Cup final. That was four games. Four rounds is another question, although as Boston's second-line center Patrice Bergeron notes, "We need to play with the guys we have."

"It'd hard to put a percentage on (the role of health in playoff success)," says Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom. "But it ranks right up there as the most important thing."

"We won some series early (with champion Tampa Bay in 2004) and got some rest," says Rangers center Brad Richards. "We were pretty much 100 per cent going into the final. (Being healthy) helped win us a couple of games."

When Crosby returned in November from his Jan. 1, 2011 headshot heard 'round the world, he looked like Superman flying through a window. In Return 2.0 last month, he appeared more like a great player simply walking through the door, someone who had a game to play but no point to prove. Crosby is one reason why Rangers GM Glen Sather has rightfully dubbed Pittsburgh as the favorite, but the concussion lottery is a game of chance.

The only hope is that the Stanley Cup Final is not a case of my neurologist can beat your neurologist.