Kyle Wellwood hasbeen a marked man in the playoffs. The Canucks center was marked above his lefteyebrow, taking five stitches, because of a high stick from the Blackhawks'Andrew Ladd early in Game 1 of the second-round Chicago-Vancouver series. Oneperiod later Wellwood was marked again when Patrick Kane inadvertently slicedhis lips with his stick—a blow that also cost Wellwood part of a tooth, which atrainer wrapped in gauze while trying to stanch a Wepnerian flow of blood.After the game, in which Wellwood had two assists and made the breakout pass onthe four-on-one that led to Vancouver's winning goal in the final 75 seconds,coach Alain Vigneault remarked that the downy-cheeked 26-year-old at least nowlooks a little like a hockey player. "I wasn't sure if he was commenting onmy on-ice production," Wellwood said on the telephone a few days later,"or my facial scar."
This is an article from the May 18, 2009 issue
Excoriated byVigneault for subpar conditioning and briefly demoted to the minors lastOctober, Wellwood—slurred by some fans as Wellfed—has the reputation of being aquart low in the grit department. But in the spring even Wellwood has awellspring of determination. All players soldier on for a reason both simpleand profound: The playoffs are encoded in a hockey player's genes, seared intohis soul.
This is stillhockey, the same as in the 82-game regular season. Six a side. Twenty playersdress. The arenas have not changed, even if the crowd now waves orange towelsin Anaheim or wears wedding-gown white in Pittsburgh or whips itself into afroth when Hurricanes fan and former Steelers coach Bill Cowher cranks a sirenbefore games in Carolina. (All of this fan frenzy falls within the broadparameters of postseason hockey normality, unlike the message-board deaththreat against Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin posted by a Pennsylvania teenduring Washington's series against Pittsburgh last week.) Despite some addedforbearance for postwhistle milling, even the officiating is relativelyunchanged in the playoffs. Yet while everything is more or less the same,nothing seems to be.
"The playoffsare to the regular season what cream filling is to the Twinkie," says Ducksenforcer George Parros, a Princeton man who probably aced the analogy sectionon the SATs. "It's a smaller portion of the whole, but it's the tastiestpart." There is a surfeit in the playoffs: more face washes, more elbows inthe corners, more scrums, more minutes because of overtime, more vitriol, moregamesmanship, more subterfuge and more startling moments of revelation.
"You get asense of how good a team you really have," says Wellwood. "Playing thesame team over and over, you try to exploit a weakness. And you can't be thatweakness on your team."
The familiaritybetween teams during a series can breed contempt, such as that between Bruinsdefenseman Zdeno Chara and Carolina center Eric Staal, who hammered at eachother in round 2. "I take these challenges to the bottom of my heart,"says Chara.
Through thealchemy of the playoffs the notorious "man's game" also takes on awhiff of childhood. "When you score goals as a kid," says Erik Cole,the Carolina right wing, "it's not because you want a contract but becauseyou want to win the Stanley Cup." Although a champion's reputation mightincrease his market value, and although Red Wings players made a bonus ofroughly $90,000 each after Detroit's run to the Cup last year, the two-monthslog is not about dollars but innocence. Like Little Leaguers, teams areplaying for the trophy at the end of the year. This trophy just happens to beabout three feet high and weigh 35 pounds.
"One of myfamily members read a blog to me that [said] it was the wrong move for [G.M.Ray] Shero to remove the 'interim' tag because it would remove my motivation towin the Stanley Cup," says Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who got the jobpermanently after Pittsburgh's first-round win. "I just about swerved offthe road, because there couldn't be greater motivation for any player or coachthan a championship. There's a badge of honor in the playoffs when you see yourteammates go through the hardships."
Standing at hisdressing-room stall before Game 3 of Chicago's series against Vancouver,Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was asked about reports that one of hisshoulders was so damaged that he couldn't raise his arm above his head. Toews,usually more serious than the Congressional Quarterly, grinned and began movinghis arms as if he were doing the funky chicken. This may not have been thebiggest playoff flap—Detroit coach Mike Babcock chafed after Marian Hossa'sapparent tying goal late in Game 3 against Anaheim was waved off—but wascertainly the most original. Toews might indeed have been suffering from an"upper-body injury," to borrow from the official NHL glossary, or maybean inner-body injury. (Word was circulating that he was out of sorts because ofthe flu, a dubious explanation but a difficult malaise for Canucks players tozero in on unless they were to join the CDC.) Toews, however, was givingnothing away, and he ignored a further invitation to raise his arms; theplayoffs are not Simon Says.
"There areguys on these teams who are lying about injuries," Hurricanes winger ChadLaRose says. "They're even lying to their own team doctors. Sure, the docknows something's wrong, but maybe you tell him symptoms that are a littledifferent than they really are so you can keep playing."
There is anomert√† about playoff injuries because players can become targets—as appeared tobe the case in Game 2 of last year's final when the Penguins' Gary Robertspunched Detroit's Johan Franzen in the head upon Franzen's return from aconcussion-related absence. "You can't be really sure who's hurt or howbadly until a team gets eliminated and they disclose injuries," saysCarolina's head athletic trainer, Pete Friesen. "This year you had [Flyerscaptain Mike Richards, who would need shoulder surgery], you had [Rangerscenter Chris] Drury playing with a broken hand, and you had the guy in Calgary[defenseman Cory Sarich] who had a fractured ankle. When it gets announced, italways makes for good [reading]."
The Red Wingstravel in the playoffs with their full complement of doctors—a generalpractitioner, an orthopedic surgeon and a dentist. (In the regular season noneof them go on road trips.) In the postseason teams order extra cases ofelectrolyte drinks, IVs and compression packs to get the drip into players morequickly should games go into overtime. (No Carolina player needed an IV duringthe Hurricanes' OT win over Boston in Game 3, but one player needed one thefollowing day. Who? You think anyone would say?) There's also an abundance ofold-school stuff such as bananas, oranges and other pick-me-ups for the extrasessions. When Penguins winger Petr Sykora played for Anaheim in 2003, he saidbetween overtime periods of a marathon against Dallas that he hoped it wouldend soon because he was sick of eating damned PowerBars. As a point ofreference the Celtics and the Bulls were lauded for an epic seven-gamefirst-round series that included four overtime games and seven extra periods;those 35 minutes of overtime compose 72.9% of a regular game. When the Ducks'Todd Marchant scored at 1:15 of the third overtime in Game 2, Anaheim andDetroit had played an extra 68.8% of a game in a single night, and nobodythought anything of it.
Almost everythingthat has occurred in the past month and will occur in the next is filed underthe all-encompassing category of Whatever It Takes. If you become a pawn insome subterfuge, you play along. Before Game 3 in New York in the first roundthe Capitals took the pregame warmup with different line combinations thancoach Bruce Boudreau planned to use in the game, a practice known as scramblingthe eggs. Detroit's Babcock might have a player stand up on the bench so theDucks think his line is going on and then send out a different unit. "Itcan be putting too many guys on the ice between whistles," Babcock says,"or putting two different line combinations on the ice for a face-off andleaving one and bringing off the other." There is almost nothing a coachwon't do to gain an edge, although so far this spring no one has ordered thevisitors' dressing room to be painted, an old Scotty Bowman gambit. Late in theplayoffs, teams often run on fumes; Bowman, when he coached the Red Wings inthe 90s, may have made this literally true.
Playoff paranoiais always just beneath the surface, but it can flare into near psychosis.During a 1997 playoff series, Bowman complained that the visitors' bench inColorado was too short; the Red Wings commissioned a local carpenter to buildthem a new one. In 2006 the Ducks suspected air traffic control in Calgary ofmaking their plane sit on the tarmac for 90 minutes while the Flames' planedeparted for Anaheim, assuring Calgary players of more rest before the nextmatch. You couldn't invent a story like that any more than you could thematching hat tricks by Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin in Game 2.
"The playoffsis a lifestyle, a mind-set," Carolina grinder Scott Walker says. "Youshut off the world. You're down at the rink, enjoying the guys, doing somevideo, eating lunch together, becoming a really tight-knit group. There'sanother level of urgency. You're used to looking at a schedule and knowing youplay next Tuesday. Now if you lose, you go home and there is noTuesday."
The unkindest cutis not Wellwood's; it's having to go home in the spring.
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