Last week should have been the best of times for the NHL. Despite several apparent mismatches, not one of the eight series ended in fewer than six games. In the most startling upset, the Chicago Blackhawks, the league's top team in the regular season, were stunned by the Minnesota North Stars, four games to two. And at week's end, the St. Louis Blues, the NHL's second-best team during the regular season, and the Calgary Flames, the fourth-best club, were unexpectedly facing elimination in seventh games on Tuesday night, by the Detroit Red Wings and the Edmonton Oilers, respectively.
But these playoffs turned out to be the worst of times for the league. After a sane—for the NHL, anyway—regular season that seemed to support the league's claim that brawling is on the wane, ugliness erupted in nearly every series. To wit:
•Detroit at St. Louis, Game 2. Red Wing forward Bob Probert drew a one-game suspension for high-sticking Blues defenseman Garth Butcher and punching goalie Vincent Riendeau on the same play.
St. Louis general manager Ron Caron, who has a long history of press-box tantrums, responded to Probert's attack by saying, "[Probert] should be in jail," with-in earshot of several scratched Detroit players who were sitting in the press box. Probert, who spent six months in jail last year for cocaine possession, was defended by Red Wing goalie Glen Hanlon, who grabbed Caron by his tie. The scuffle was quickly broken up. Caron was fined $1,000 and barred from NHL press boxes for the remainder of the playoffs. The Blues organization drew a $10,000 fine. Hanlon was fined $100.
•Detroit at St. Louis, Game 5. Nine players were ejected for various high-sticking and fighting incidents as the teams set a playoff record for combined penalty minutes (298). Among the unsavory occurrences: Detroit defenseman Brad McCrimmon used his stick to knock out four of St. Louis center Dan Quinn's teeth; Red Wing defenseman Steve Chiasson walloped Blues winger Rich Sutter with a mean, unprovoked crosscheck to the back; and Butcher started a fight with Shawn Burr of the Red Wings after Burr had done nothing more than block Butcher's shot.
•Minnesota at Chicago, Games 1 and 2. A parade to the penalty box and an excess of after-the-whistle posturing made these games last 3:32 and 3:22, respectively, about an hour longer than the average regular-season game.
•Chicago at Minnesota, Game 4. Blackhawk goon Stu Grimson, itching to duke it out with his North Star counterpart Shane Churla, freed himself from linesman Mark Vines by slipping out of his jersey and pursued Churla in his undershirt.
•Minnesota at Chicago, Game 5. As North Star winger Brian Bellows lay prone on the ice after being knocked off his skates, Blackhawk defenseman Chris Chelios gouged Bellows's eye with his finger. Bellows suffered scratches to the cornea and blurred vision.
•Pittsburgh at New Jersey, Game 4. The Penguins' star defenseman, Paul Coffey, beat Devils defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov to the outside on a rush. Fetisov reacted by high-sticking Coffey in the face. Coffey suffered a scratched cornea. Fetisov said that the high-stick was an accident that occurred because he had slipped as he turned to chase after Coffey.
•Hartford at Boston, Game 5. Bruin center Bob Sweeney, whose left eye had already been blackened when it was hit with a puck earlier in the series, was lying on the ice grappling with a Whaler player when Hartford winger Pat Verbeek skated over and bloodied Sweeney by punching him in the same eye.
•Montreal at Buffalo, Game 6. With the Canadiens leading 5-1 and less than three minutes away from clinching the series, Montreal coach Pat Burns pulled star goaltender Patrick Roy from the game—for Roy's own safety. Afterward, Sabre winger Mike Hartman admitted that he had needlessly skated into Roy. "I hit him," said Hartman. "I kind of gave him an elbow. Maybe I lost my head."
•Vancouver at Los Angeles, Game 5. With the Kings comfortably ahead 7-4, Canuck coach Pat Quinn sent hit man Gino Odjick, who had seven goals, one assist and 296 penalty minutes in 45 regular-season games, out for the game's final shift. Odjick promptly tried to start a fight with Kings forward Dave Taylor, who at 35 is too old to do anything but play.
As with most incidents that make hockey appear dangerous and ridiculous, last week's spectacles looked worse, and more hazardous, than they actually were. However, players in their underwear performing deeds unrelated to playing hockey make for terrific highlights on the late-evening news. By refusing to make the penalties for brawling severe enough that such brutality would not be a useful tactic, the NHL, a league that is closely followed only regionally, is saddled with this national image: half-dressed players behaving like madmen.
In clinging to the rationale that players must have a means to vent their frustrations and that it is safer for them to do so by throwing punches than by wielding their sticks, the NHL continues to punish spontaneous: one-on-one fighting with mere five-minute penalties. To its credit, the league has recently taken steps to curtail mass brawling and deliberate fistic intimidation. Most significant, players now face 10-game suspensions for leaving the bench during an altercation (their coaches face five-game suspensions). As a result, the flow of players jumping into existing fights or starting secondary ones has slowed to a trickle.
Still, at least one primitive ritual continues in the postseason. When one team is hopelessly behind—and figures it can't hurt itself by taking penalties—its goons roam the ice looking for, and usually finding, trouble. Their goal: to set the tone and send a message for the next meeting. Because hockey is a contact sport, intimidation is an inevitable part of any series. But when blowouts occur, exhibitions of Neanderthal behavior are more the rule than the exception.
The NHL refuses to acknowledge that fighting brings the league more aggravation than benefit. The NHL, though, is right about one thing—those sticks are dangerous. It has tried to train players to keep their sticks down by punishing even inadvertent high-sticking with four-minute penalties. Nonetheless, players are still at significant risk.
Thus, at a time when the league should be accepting accolades for achieving a high level of competitiveness throughout its 16-team playoff field, it is embarrassed again. Of course, a playoff system that matches divisional rivals that have faced each other seven or eight times during the regular season breeds at least some of the contempt that led to the aforementioned incidents. Throw in the pressure of elimination from the playoffs, and the prospect for violence increases.
Still, playoff hockey can be highly competitive without becoming dangerous, disgusting and—maybe worst of all for the NHL—tedious. The Oilers and the Flames, who are bitter rivals, laid ferocious but largely clean checks on each other throughout their series, but neither team committed a foul worthy of a suspension. Through the first six games of the series, they found the ideal balance between finesse and hard hitting that makes hockey a compelling spectacle.
Edmonton, the defending Stanley Cup champion, is bigger, stronger and more relentless than Calgary, and the Oilers simply wore down the Flames in the first four games, taking a 3-1 lead. But Calgary, which won the 1989 Stanley Cup and finished the '90-91 season with 20 more points than Edmonton, rallied in Games 5 and 6 to force a decisive seventh game.
Each year the Oilers become further removed in personality from those remarkable offensive machines that produced four Stanley Cup winners between 1984 and '88. Coffey and Wayne Gretzky are long gone, and Edmonton's last remaining sniper, Jari Kurri, played in Europe this season. Still, the Oilers have excellent goaltending, which can be the deciding factor in any series. Grant Fuhr, who missed most of this season and the previous one because of injuries and a league-imposed drug suspension, looked sharp against Calgary.
In the other Smythe Division playoff, the Kings survived a scare against the Canucks and won a hard-fought series in six games. Los Angeles, in the end, simply had too much firepower for Vancouver.
Minnesota, which couldn't rise any higher than fourth place in the Norris because of a terrible start, completed the regular season as a far better team than its 68 points suggested, but Chicago still figured to prevail. The North Stars, who fell to the Blackhawks in seven games in the first round a year ago, proved to be the more mature, focused team this time. Chicago led the league in penalty minutes this season by playing aggressively, not necessarily unintelligently, but the Blackhawks spent so much time in the penalty box during this series that Minnesota scored 15 power-play goals, which tied a playoff record.
St. Louis was pushed to the brink by Detroit largely because the Blues could not match the Red Wings' depth at center. St. Louis won six of eight regular-season games from Detroit, enough to convince Red Wing coach Bryan Murray that the Blues' combination of center Adam Oates (115 points, third best in the league despite missing 19 games) and his 86-goal right wing, Brett Hull, could not be shut down. So Murray conceded St. Louis's strengths and played to its weaknesses.
Oates wound up with 11 points in the first six games, and Hull scored seven goals. But in the first four games of the series, the Blues failed to play the same relentless, defensively sound style that earned them 105 points during the season, and they were unable to check Sergei Fedorov, Detroit's slick, quick rookie center from the Soviet Union, and Steve Yzerman, the Red Wings' 108-point center. That undermined St. Louis's strategy of keeping the score low enough so that Hull and Oates could provide all the scoring the Blues needed.
The Blues obviously tightened up after Detroit took Game 1, 6-3. When faced with one-goal deficits and ties in the next three games, they played as if they were behind by four goals. St. Louis gambled in situations in which it had played smartly all season and repeatedly found itself in three-on-two and two-on-one situations wrought by the superior quickness of Yzerman and Fedorov. The Red Wings' strength at center—Jimmy Carson, twice a 100-point scorer in four NHL seasons, is the third-line guy in Detroit—also showed up in numerous goals scored off face-offs. A Red Wing defense that looked to be too old and too erratic stood up better than expected. And second-year goaltender Tim Cheveldae, one of the league's best-kept secrets, played strongly as Detroit took a three-games-to-one lead. Then the St. Louis defense clamped down, giving up only one goal while winning Games 5 and 6.
The New York Rangers, who held first place in the Patrick Division from Oct. 23 until March 17, did not have the strength of either bodies or character to avoid a second consecutive elimination by the Washington Capitals, this time falling in six games. The Caps simply outworked the more talented Rangers. The Devils took the body often and with authority against the high-powered Penguins, the Patrick Division champs, but opportunistic Pittsburgh regrouped after falling behind 3-2 in games to prevail in seven.
Form held in the Adams Division. Buffalo's playoff miseries—it has not won a round since 1983—were extended by Montreal, which won this series in six games. The Canadiens, who turned the series in their favor on Russ Courtnall's overtime goal in Game 5, survived some rusty play by Roy, who returned late in the season after suffering a knee injury.
"They seemed to know how to win," said Hartford goalie Peter Sidorkiewicz after the Bruins vanquished his Whalers for the second straight year, this time four games to two. "That's something we don't know how to do yet."
Last April, Hartford led Boston 2-1 in games and held a 5-2 lead in Game 4 but went on to lose that first-round series in seven games. This season, after tying the series at two games apiece, the Whalers were up 1-0 in Game 5 and outplaying the Bruins as the third period began. But on a routine dump-in by Boston defenseman Ray Bourque, Sidorkiewicz left the net to play the carom. The puck bounced off Hartford forward Paul Cyr and into the empty net. Sixteen seconds later, Bruin center Dave Poulin outslicked John Cullen on a face-off in the Hartford zone—Poulin let Cullen pull the puck back and then beat every Whaler to it—and fed Dave Christian for the go-ahead goal. The stunned Whalers gave up four more goals in that game and never recovered. The Bruins wrapped up the series with a 3-1 victory last Saturday night.
"In hockey, teams that are committed enough, intense enough, hungry enough, can make more of an impact than baseball or basketball players can make with the same intensity," said Boston coach Mike Milbury after the series. That's why upsets occur. That's also why most of them happen in early rounds. To win the Stanley Cup, a team must prevail in four best-of-seven series, too many for underdogs to go all the way on emotion. When that emotion inevitably ebbs, skill, depth and experience make the playoffs predictable.
Milbury, noting the other favorites who were fighting for their playoff lives, breathed a sigh of relief when his team reached the first plateau last Saturday night. "I'm glad that's over," he said. "After we lost the first game, I was scared to death."