EDMONTON — A shot is blocked and a hockey player crawls in agony toward the bench. There, the camera closes in to capture pain that is so overt it aches all the way to the Canadian couch, where many have felt the sting of vulcanized rubber at some level of the game, and can extrapolate the pain to what an NHL player blocking an NHL shot must be feeling.
On the television, the play-by-play voice announces: “That’s playoff hockey!”
Anton Khudobin, who was never supposed to be a starting goalie for this Dallas Stars run, makes another 35-plus saves and carries his team to a Stanley Cup Final. When asked about his storybook rise, from Kazakhstan to Kazak-Stanley, he shrugs:
“It's playoffs,” he says, which means nothing and everything all at the same time.
We hear every spring (and strangely this fall) about this anomaly called “playoff hockey,” a brand of the game that is to regular-season hockey what Half-Life: Alyx is to video games.
So, what really is “playoff hockey,” and what makes it so much better?
And why does a sports fan rarely hear about “playoff football?” Or playoff baseball or basketball?
“What makes hockey different,” begins Stars 1,000-game veteran Andrew Cogliano, “is you have a group of guys that in a lot of ways have similar personalities. In playoffs, the deeper you go you realize to be successful you have to play for more than yourself. You need to do things out of your comfort zone to help the team win.”
Certainly, winning is every bit as important to other athletes. But somehow the games nearer the end of the NBA, NFL and MLB seasons aren’t so starkly different than those played in Week 1, or on Opening Day, as they are in hockey.
“With how we are raised playing hockey level to level, the playoffs — especially the deeper rounds — provide a sense of camaraderie and obligation to sacrifice everything you have to win. Not only for yourself, but more importantly for your teammates, organization and fans. That’s why I think the hockey culture in playoffs is a special place to be a part of. In a lot of ways, it proves to you why you love the game so much.”
To the hockey player, the post-season provides a platform where he or she can prove what a quality teammate they truly are. In a sport where athletes go to any length not to stand out from the group, or accept individual praise, this platform is hockey’s Mecca.
The heaviest criticism you could ever level at a hockey player is that they are a bad teammate. As such, the quest to be a superior teammate takes players on playoff journeys that are simply not possible in December and January.
“Goals mean so much more in the playoffs than they do in the regular season,” said Tampa’s Alex Killorn. “You have 82 regular-season games. If you don’t block a shot and they score, it may not mean much in the grand scheme of things. Coming down to the Eastern Conference Final and the Final, missing a blocked shot that could potentially cost you a goal, could potentially lose you a game, has a huge bearing on a series.
“You don’t want to be that guy.”
That quest — that fear of being “that guy” — is the great equalizer in a hockey dressing room, where the nature of “rolling four lines and six D” allows pain and sacrifice to be shared more equally than in, say, baseball, where a shortstop is incapable of taking a foul tip for a catcher. Craig MacTavish, a four-time Cup winner, once told me, “The last thing you wanted was to be in a dressing room at the end of a game where everybody was into it but you.”
If you didn’t have an ice bag; if you didn’t require attention from the trainer; if you didn’t hurt at least as much as the median guy in that room was hurting, then you weren’t shouldering your share of the load. Unless you were out there scoring a goal every night, the one element that can alter hockey’s responsibility tree, you risked the scarlet letter of having not done enough.
But it can’t play out that way for an entire 82-game season. These guys would never make it.
“When you’re on a five-game road trip, whipping through the West and you’re in game five in Arizona, guys have been on the road for 10 days and want to get home," said Jon Cooper, the Lightning’s head coach. "There’s a different feeling in the locker room. The magnifying glass is just 100-fold when it comes to the playoffs. Everyone plays the regular season just to get to the playoffs. Once you’re in it’s like a brand new season starting.”
“Every play, every situation can not only turn that game around, but it can turn a series around," marvelled 900-game defenceman Andy Greene. There is just so much momentum, so much on the line every single shift in a game.”
In football, you have teams within a team. Offence, defence, special teams… A punter has no more in common with a linebacker than a quarterback has with an O-lineman.
At a track meet, massive shot putters compete in the same “sport” as skin-and-bones 10,000-metre runners, though one could hardly do the other’s job efficiently.
In hockey, however, Jamie Benn can inspire by hitting like a third-liner, or even peppering a fight or two in with his playoff goals — one of the traits that made Jarome Iginla a walk-in Hall of Famer. Every player can play goal by blocking a shot, the singular act that gets the biggest rise out of the bench in an NHL playoff game.
“Our personalities as hockey players, we’ve been bred to sacrifice. To play tough at times. Playoffs bring that out of everyone — not just a few. Everyone,” Cogliano said. “It’s an amazing feeling, playing in the playoffs, winning, and coming in after the game and seeing everyone exhausted. Guys are icing themselves down… It just really is something about our sport.
“For us, it’s that team atmosphere. The willingness to sacrifice your body to win a game and win the Stanley Cup. Which is something that all of us dream of.”
We are certain that baseball players grow up dreaming about winning the World Series, and football kids play in hundreds of Super Bowls or Grey Cups on their way to actually participating in one. And the television ratings prove that more eyes are on any NFL, NBA or MLB player — let alone European soccer — than ever gaze out over an NHL playoff game.
Yet, somehow, to hockey people it is the other 19 sets of eyes that matter most.
Nineteen teammates watch a player take a hit to make a play and thus the bar is set, only to be raised on the next shift by a similar but perhaps greater sacrifice. Pain is the currency, going hand in hockey glove with any act that puts team before self.
“Winning the Stanley Cup is something that as a young kid and athlete it really is the pinnacle of playing this game,” Cogliano said. “When you have such a special moment to shoot for — to win — it just brings out complete emotion, compete, and willingness to sacrifice anything to get there.”
That’s playoff hockey.