Not everyone will agree, of course, but for me, the first round of the NHL playoffs is the best hockey we see every year.
It’s sixteen teams who have endured the grueling 82-game schedule—and survived. They have worked through injuries, roster upheaval and all the ups and downs associated with a long and taxing regular season. They all deserve to be part of the spring tournament. And every team knows they have a shot, as upsets are far from uncommon once the playoffs begin—especially in the first round.
I guess it’s my favourite time of the hockey year because, as a young fan back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, there was always something special about the playoffs. Of course, it helped that from the time I really became a Leaf fan, the blue and white were in the playoffs every season between 1958-’59 and 1966-’67.
The regular season 'stats' were always in your mind but no longer necessarily relevant. Every goal and every game seemed to matter so much. If you had a favourite player it was a particular thrill if they scored a goal in a playoff game. Those are wonderful memories and I’m sure many of you feel the same when you sit back and think about NHL playoff hockey when you were a young fan.
Nowadays, even with a 30-team NHL, I still love the first round more than the later rounds. Maybe it's because by the time teams get to the finals they are exhausted, battered and bruised. In truth, I don’t find those games as captivating as the first round. Don’t get me wrong; I realize that the two finalists are playing for the most difficult trophy in the world to win in professional sports. It takes winning four grueling playoff rounds in a physically demanding sport to capture a championship. When you win the Stanley Cup, you’ve earned it.
That said, the first round is where teams are as healthy as they are likely ever going to be in the playoffs. Every guy seems to give maximum effort compared to the regular season. Rather than fighting, there is more hitting and shot blocking. There are constant battles for pucks and lots of traffic around both nets. The momentum shifts back and forth. And most importantly from a fan perspective, you can feel that every team believes it has a chance to do something special, and so it gives everything they have.
I know that for many hockey fans the Olympics are the hockey they enjoy the most. I get that. But I’m not a big fan of the larger ice surfaces. I like the North American rinks I was raised with. There is still room for skill players and creativity, but there is also a premium on physical play. "Will" makes a difference at playoff time.
One thing I add: I don’t know if I can say I’ve “learned” this over the years, but I’m of the view that the first game of a series doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot. Of course it can, I realize. But by and large, especially if the home team wins, I don’t believe it’s necessarily an indicator or a tell tale sign of what’s to come.
I feel Game 2 is important in most series, as is Game 4. I tend to think those can be momentum changers, though we all know momentum shifts a lot during the playoffs anyway, including within games.
But when it comes to the first game, hey, if the visiting team wins, that can be significant, of course. But I remember back in 1967…the Leafs were absolutely hammered by the heavily favoured Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the semi-finals. Terry Sawchuk was in goal and we lost by something like 6-2 or 6-1. Nonetheless, we went on to win the series in 6 games.
My point? I’m sure every living, breathing hockey writer of the time ‘wrote off’ the Leafs after the first game of both series that spring. They were that bad—and that outclassed. But in the end, Game 1 meant nothing. The Leafs made amends in Game 2 in both series, and went on to win a championship.
We’ve all seen many similar examples in more recent times—series that looked as though they were over, based on the home team winning the first game or two, sometimes by a lopsided margin. Heck, the Leafs experienced that in the spring of ’93, when the Pat Burns-led squad was crushed by the Red Wings in the first two games in Detroit.
In between Games 2 and 3, there was all kinds of criticism of the Leafs, and especially of Wendel Clark. But Clark rebounded strongly in Games 3 and 4 in Toronto. And that was also the beginning of the Doug Gilmour breakthrough performance, as he willed the Leafs to a tremendous playoff run that finally ended against Wayne Gretzky and the LA Kings in Game 7 of the semi-finals.
Memories. Great memories. And it all starts with the first round of the playoffs.