If Monday night’s four overtime games felt like something that came out of the 1980s, that’s because they did. The last time the NHL had four games in one night go into overtime was almost exactly 32 years ago, on April 10, 1985. The only other time it happened was almost exactly five years previous to that, April 11, 1980. (Stick tap to hockey-reference.com for that nugget.)
Yes, for one night Hockey Night in Canada became That ’80s Show without the mullets, denim jackets and popped collars. And it was wonderful. For one night, hockey showcased everything we love about this game and not even the NHL could screw it up. In fact, when the NHL is trying to sell the game to potential fans and corporate sponsors, it should simply put Monday night’s games on a continuous loop and tell them to watch it. It should show these games to anybody in Las Vegas who is contemplating supporting that new franchise and tell them this is how the game is always played.
But it wasn’t the fact that that four games went into overtime that made it so special. Lots of bad games go into OT, too. In fact, the NHL is often seen crowing about how so many of its games are decided by only one goal, conveniently forgetting the fact that nobody scores. It’s really easy to have close games when the puck never enters the back of the net. But on Monday night, no lead was safe.
The Washington Capitals are up 3-1 on the Toronto Maple Leafs and have a full two minutes of 5-on-3 and they can’t hold it and lose 4-3 in overtime. The Ottawa Senators go up 3-0 on the Boston Bruins, in part because of one of the most gorgeous saucer passes you’ll ever see, then blow the lead and win in overtime. The recent three-time Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks jump out to a 2-0 lead in a game in which they absolutely need to crush the Nashville Predators and they gag it up. The Calgary Flames grab a 4-1 lead on home ice, then watch their goaltending crumble and lose in extra time.
We had goals, an average of seven a game during a time of the year when scoring is notoriously down. We had power plays, 22 of them, at a time when the officials usually swallow their whistles. When was the last time you saw one team get five power plays and the other team get zero in a playoff game in the National House League? Two of the games were decided with power-play goals, one of which was a residual of a penalty that was called with 16 seconds remaining in regulation time in a tied game. Do you people have any idea how rare it is to see one of those things happen, forget a wonderful confluence of them?
What we saw last night was the game played at a frenetic pace, which helps in the scoring department. The faster the pace of the game, the less coaches are able to impose themselves on the outcome. The Capitals, for example, have no answer at the moment for the Maple Leafs blinding speed and veteran coach Barry Trotz is getting caught too often with the wrong people out on the ice. The teams Monday night even managed to play hard, physical games without resorting to the age-old mouth-breather tactics. Case in point, the Leafs were down 2-0 and needed a momentum swing in the worst way. And they got it from Nazem Kadri, who laid two thunderous hits seconds before Auston Matthews’ first goal of the playoffs. He did it by good, old-fashioned hitting, not a fight to get the boys going.
Referees played their part by “letting the players play” for the most part, without being afraid to make calls that were warranted. And because of that, a very selfish retaliation by Riley Nash may cost the Boston Bruins the series. The goalies really, really helped, too. They posted a collective save percentage of .888 and only three of the nine goalies who played – Pekka Rinne, Corey Crawford and Jonathan Bernier – post a save percentage above .900 on the night.
So when you put it all together – dizzying pace, top-notch officiating, erratic goaltending and enormous plays by big-time players – you have the most wonderful time of the year. The first round is always the best of the playoffs, but even by those standards, this is off the charts. And it has a feel so far, at least this early, that this might be one of those crazy years rife with upsets and unpredictability.
We can only hope. Like a good number of teams involved in them, the playoffs this spring have overachieved.