|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2013||[Print without images]|
Two months of planes, trains and rental cars, 10 different NHL arenas and 26 playoff games; it's been another eventful ride this spring ... and summer.
Here's a look at the moments I won't soon forget from my playoff travels:
April 30, Kings at Blues, Game 1
Oh my, sitting up in the press box at Scottrade Center, I remember dropping my pen and watching jaw-dropped as the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues pounded into each other like it was a hockey game played in an octagon ring. You could hear the smacking of shoulder pads all the way up where I sat, the Blues making a point of coming out and hammering away at the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Two of the NHL's most physical teams would end up playing the most physical series of the playoffs right off the hop in the opening round, which in the end would catch up to the injury-ravaged and fatigued Kings by the Western Conference finals. The Blues took a big bite out of them in that opening round.
May 5, Canadiens at Senators, Game 3
It was '80s night at Scotiabank Place, with the hometown Senators playing the role of the Quebec Nordiques. OK, so it wasn't quite the famous Good Friday brawl from the Montreal Forum from 1984. But by 2013 standards, it was something, all right.
A line brawl, 236 combined penalty minutes and post-game theatrics, this night had it all. Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien lost it when his rival Paul MacLean of the Ottawa Senators called a timeout with 17 seconds to go in a 6-1 game.
"We got beat by a good team tonight; they played very well," Therrien began in his postgame address, the fury obvious in his eyes. "I always believe you let the players dictate the game. Calling a timeout at 17 seconds in the game -- I never saw that before.
"You never want to humiliate another team as a coach, and this is exactly what happened tonight. As far as I'm concerned, it was classless."
MacLean defended his timeout by saying he wanted to warn his players to keep their heads up because he was worried there might be more rough stuff.
"So in order to protect my players under circumstances that were instigated by the Montreal Canadiens, I was forced to protect my players," he said. "And I will do that every time."
As for Therrien's assertion that Maclean was trying to humiliate the Canadiens, the Sens coach replied: "I thought they were doing a real good job of that themselves. They didn't need my help at all."
May 9, Senators at Canadiens, Game 5
On this night, the Sens wrapped up a five-game series win over the Habs.
|Daniel Alfredsson has seen a lot, and liked what he saw against the Canadiens this year.|
As I walked down to the visitors' dressing room at the Bell Centre, I poked closer to the back exit door where I wasn't supposed to be standing so I could get within earshot of the Sens' players celebration in the room. Chants of "Ole, Ole, Ole," emanated from the room, the Ottawa players' mocking of the chant Habs fans like to sing when times are better for their hockey team.
When the players came out to talk, the look on the face of Daniel Alfredsson said it all. It was their first playoff series win since their 2007 trip to the Cup finals and the grizzled captain, whose future remains uncertain, was living in the moment.
Injuries nearly ground their season to a halt. But led by their Swedish veteran, the Sens found a way to make the playoffs, then dispatch the No. 2 seed from Montreal.
"Everyone knows the story about our team, going to the [Cup] finals in '07, and struggling for a few years and then really changing the whole makeup of the team and going in a new direction," Alfredsson said that night. "Last year was a great learning curve for a lot of the guys just to get into the playoffs.
"Now continuing and building on that, we believe in what we do. We know we're not going to be pretty every night, but we seem to find a way -- and we always believe."
May 12, Bruins at Maple Leafs, Game 6
I didn't go to Boston for Game 7 the next day, missing out on the most dramatic game of the playoffs, because I had an early morning flight to L.A. to start the second round.
But Game 6 in Toronto the previous night, while obviously lost in the shuffle now in the context of the Game 7 collapse by the Leafs, was still something to behold.
The sense we all got from covering that game that night at the Air Canada Centre, the Toronto Maple Leafs pushing the Boston Bruins to seven games with a big Game 6 win, was that no matter what happened the next night, the Leafs had made giant strides in making the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
Notably, Phil Kessel overcame his phobia of playing his former team with a great series, while Tyler Seguin struggled mightily in the series for Boston.
Chants of "Thank you, Seguin," from the Leafs crowd on this night really struck a chord. Former Leafs GM Brian Burke took so much heat for the deal which sent three picks, two of them first-rounders (which became Seguin and Dougie Hamilton), to Boston for Kessel.
It's still too early to tell, especially since Hamilton might yet be a stud on D, but Seguin's development has been slow, while all Kessel has done is score a ton of goals in Toronto.
We might have all been a little too early in our harsh judgment of this trade. And on this night in Game 6, that feeling hit home.
May 18, Kings at Sharks, Game 3
There are many nights where TV just doesn't do justice to being in the rink to see it all happen.
This was one of those nights.
|Logan Couture never let his ailing ankle get to him.|
To watch Logan Couture hobbled by an ankle injury after an awkward fall in the second period, the gasp in the crowd as he left for the dressing room, and the energy from the crowd after seeing him return before the end of the period, well, that was one thing.
To see Couture score the overtime winner to help his team avoid a 3-0 series deficit?
That's the stuff of legends. It was a moment that cemented Couture's rising profile in the NHL, and as a future captain of the San Jose Sharks.
"In my opinion, he's probably the leader of this team," veteran Sharks blueliner Brad Stuart would say after the game, without hesitation. "Throughout the season, he's kind of taken that role, I think, especially on the ice. So to have him come back was huge. It's just a boost to the guys mentally, if nothing else."
After the series, with his head in his hands after a heartbreaking Game 7 loss in L.A., I would ask Couture about his injury. He played through an ailing ankle the rest of the series, needing treatment before each game.
May 21, Kings at Sharks, Game 4
I know, I know, two Sharks moments in a row. But I can't ignore this one.
In the leadup to Game 4, with all the talk about Couture and how this was becoming his team, captain Joe Thornton was the biggest Couture cheerleader of them all, happily answering questions about his younger teammate.
Then "Jumbo" went out and dominated Game 4. Behind the scenes, there are some people in the Sharks organization who wondered if Thornton wasn't motivated somewhat to show people that he, too, could still play in the wake of all the Couture talk. Nothing wrong with some healthy inner team competition.
Thornton came out like a beast unleashed in the opening period of Game 4, his line leading the way as the Sharks outshot the defending Cup champs 15-3 in the first 20 minutes. It was mesmerizing to see.
"That first period was as good as we've played possibly all year," Dan Boyle would later say.
Thornton's line with Brent Burns and T.J. Galiardi skated circles around the Kings.
"It's the best I've seen him play," Galiardi said of Thornton that night. "I don't know what he had for pregame meal today, but I hope he has it again in a couple of days. He was flying. And it's so contagious; when Jumbo's going, everybody is going. It's pretty to watch."
May 28, Sharks at Kings, Game 7
I thoroughly enjoyed covering this all-California series. It's funny how people who weren't in either building commenting from miles away thought this series was boring. You could not possibly think that for a second if you were actually in the arenas for these seven awfully close games between two divisional rivals.
An incredibly tight series was decided by a tight Game 7, the always clutch Justin Williams scoring twice and 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick delivering another gem in a 2-1 victory at a rocking Staples Center.
|Jonathan Quick strikes again.|
I won't soon forget Quick's late-game save on Joe Pavelski as the Sharks pressed for the equalizer.
"Their goalie, we didn't want him to be the story," Boyle would say afterward in a quiet Sharks dressing room. "[But] I think he was the difference in this series, in my opinion."
The Sharks had nothing to hang their heads about. A season seemingly headed nowhere just two months earlier turned around for them, and they surprised many just by getting as far as they did.
"They're as good as us," Kings head coach Darryl Sutter would say afterward, a sign of respect to a Sharks team that gave the Kings all they could handle. And perhaps a little too much. L.A. was gasping for air by the end of this series and it would show in the next round.
June 5, Blackhawks' off day between Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference finals
It's hard to believe but there we were, a group of reporters, standing around Patrick Kane's stall in the visitors' dressing room at Staples Center in Los Angeles on this day, listening to a young star detail how he trying to remain confident through a dry spell.
Just a few days before, he said, he even watched video with his dad of all his career playoff goals, including the big one in June 2010, to help restore his confidence. Going seven playoff games without a goal will do that to a guy whose sole purpose in life is to put up points.
"It's not that all of a sudden that I'm a bad player," Kane said that day. "It just doesn't happen like that. I had a good regular season, and I'm still a good player in this league and can make plays. It's something I've just got to go out and do. I can't take no for an answer, and [have to] go out and do it."
I was impressed with how Kane just sat there and essentially kept answering the same question asked 18 different ways.
He vowed to be better. And he was. He scored a big goal in Game 4 the following night in a pivotal series win to give the Hawks a 3-1 lead. Then came Game 5 in Chicago ...
June 8, Kings at Blackhawks, Game 5
The hats came flying on the ice, Kane was sliding on his knees, and you couldn't hear yourself in the United Center.
No. 88's hat trick lifted the Chicago Blackhawks to a series-clinching win over the Kings, a sensational game in which the defending Cup champs refused to go away easily, Mike Richards scoring with 10 seconds to go in the third period to force OT.
|Patrick Kane, center, and his Blackhawks teammates didn't let occasional struggles get them down.|
"You look back over several games of your career; that was a game you'll always remember tonight. That was an amazing hockey game," Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said.
But what I'll remember the most is walking into the Kings' room afterward and seeing GM Dean Lombardi hug center Jarret Stoll, the emotion evident.
The defending Cup champs went down swinging. The injury list revealed afterward was remarkable. The Kings were the walking wounded. They had nothing left. They had nothing to be ashamed of. A final four appearance after winning it all was a solid title defense. They'll be back.
Then came a Stanley Cup finals that lived up to billing between the Bruins and Hawks, clearly the NHL's top two clubs this season, slugging it out in a series filled with all kinds of moments.
The year began with the doom and gloom of the labor battle between the NHL and NHLPA. It ended with the sport saving itself yet again with a playoff to remember.
June 24, Hawks at Bruins, Game 6
Two goals in the final 1:16 of the game, just 17 seconds apart.
With Corey Crawford on the bench for an extra attacker, Jonathan Toews feeds Bryan Bickell in front and his one-timer ties the game 2-2, what had been a rocking TD Garden was silenced in a heartbeat. Reporters were still breaking down the goal in the press box when, on the ensuing faceoff, the Hawks come right back with their fourth line, Dave Bolland putting in a rebound after a shot by Michael Frolik, 3-2 Hawks with 58.3 seconds to go.
It's as if the Bruins on the ice on that faceoff were still stunned by Bickell's goal, because they just sat back and allowed the Bolland line an easy zone entry and penetration. Bolland got loose for the rebound at the side of the net. You could hear gasps in the TD Garden crowd.
A historical collapse by the Bruins in that final 1:16. "Did that just happened?" I asked ESPN colleague Craig Custance beside me in the press box. It sure did, and it will never be forgotten.