I’m not sure where the April showers are so far, but it is the fourth month of the year, and this is Detroit, so whether the rains come or not, the hockey fan is about to venture into “that time of the year.”
It’s a time of mysterious injuries of the upper and lower body; a time of a game every other night, each the most important the Red Wings will have played thus far.
It’s a time of guys trying to get off the schneid; a time of “puck luck” and a word that rhymes with it. It’s a time of struggling power plays and stealing home ice. It’s a time of ricochets and “lively boards” and a time to panic.
It’s a time when goalies “would like to have that one back” unless they’re “standing on their head.”
It’s a time when skaters are being “Johnny on the spot” and speedy, pesky guys who are great on the “PK.”
It’s a time when you can’t let anyone come into “your building” and shove you around and a time to play a “good road game.”
It’s trailing in a series, 3-1, and declaring that you’re just taking everything “one game, one period, one shift at a time.”
It’s playoff hockey time in Detroit, where every fan wakes up the morning of Game 1 of the first round and sees that a panic button has been installed on their TV remote, ready for the run.
It’s a fun time to be on Twitter and to listen to talk radio to parse the thoughts of the suicidal as the Red Wings fight through a series, and I’m reminded of a line from Steely Dan’s song, “Black Friday,” which is about the financial ruin of stockbrokers.
“I’m gonna stand out by the door; gonna watch the grey men as they dive from the 14th floor.”
There’s nothing quite like a long playoff run in Detroit, the legions of which have so smarmily given the city the moniker of “Hockeytown.”
It’s springtime hockey, which is significantly different than fall and winter hockey.
As the temps increase, so does the pressure. The checking turns tighter than a cheapskate’s wallet.
The other three major team sports’ postseasons don’t have the element of luck, chance and quirkiness that playoff hockey is rife with.
Last year, during the ALCS, the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera hit a shot down the third-base line in the sixth inning of Game 5 that struck the bag and shot over the head of Texas 3B Adrian Beltre. The fortuitous hit drove in the go-ahead run and started a four-run rally that swayed the game in the Tigers’ favor.
But playoff baseball isn’t filled with bad hops and caroms and the feeling of kismet that playoff hockey provides.
Nor does basketball or football; those sports’ matches are overwhelmingly decided by talent, scheme and execution.
Hockey is the fickle finger of fate of sports. It’s blood, toil and sweat—and broken noses, jaws and teeth—but so often the final score is as fair as a crooked judge.
In basketball, if you outplay, out-rebound and outshoot your opponent, you win by 25 points. In baseball, if you bash the ball, pitch the ball and catch the ball, they’ll call it a laugher. In football, if you outclass the enemy, you’ll cover the spread and then some.
Playoff hockey will have none of that kind of justice.
The shots-on-goal counter can read a two-to-one ratio. The playing surface can look tilted in a 45-degree direction. The outplayed, outshot team can look like it’s wearing skates made of lead.
Yet the scoreboard won’t indicate any of that.
Playoff hockey isn’t interested in following formula or offering up the usual cast of characters as heroes. It’s sometimes not enough to lead in every category one can think of, because in the only one that matters—the final score—you just might find yourself on the losing end.
A successful playoff run in hockey lasts about two months, has more ups and downs than a teeter-totter during recess and plays with the emotions of fans like a cat with a ball of yarn.
Brendan Shanahan is a three-time Stanley-Cup-winner and a playoff hockey war horse. He came to Detroit in a trade in 1996, anxious to win a championship. He got it, eight months later. Then he got two more, wearing the Winged Wheel on his chest as if it had been branded there.
A couple Aprils ago, I sat across from Shanahan while he was in town prepping for a Fox Sports special involving two local high school hockey teams renewing a bitter rivalry.
He clued me in on how a hockey player looks at a playoff run.
“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”
Shanahan was just over a year removed from retirement when we spoke and he already was pining for participating in playoff hockey.
“I miss playing for the Stanley Cup,” he told me, plainly.
Yet playoff hockey isn’t just the Shanahans of the world, who played in 184 postseason games and scored 60 springtime goals.
It’s also a quiet, shy kid playing with a bottle of water, sitting at a table with his name on a placard during a media meet-and-greet, looking like he was feeling foolish by his mere presence at such a gathering.
Darren Helm, just a couple days removed from scoring the overtime goal that sent the Red Wings into the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, was another of those accidental heroes that the playoffs are so famous for conjuring up.
I was roaming the big media/players room the NHL set up at the Renaissance Center in advance of the Red Wings-Penguins final when I caught Helm playing with his water bottle. He was so young the bottle might as well have had a nipple on it.
Yet he was the hero of the moment—except no one was talking to him.
Too many other stars to grab sound bites from, I guess.
I chatted Helm up for a bit and strained to hear him. He had just scored the biggest goal of the Red Wings’ season but had the countenance of a boy meeting his girlfriend’s father for the first time.
Brendan Shanahan and Darren Helm—two playoff heroes, two ends of a spectrum.
But this is springtime hockey, so they’re also one and the same.