Advil, anyone? There are more than a handful of NHL players who took two after the rugged opening round of action on the road to the sacred chalice, the Stanley Cup. This somewhat surreal landscape of blood on the ice and fire in the fists had been virtually nonexistent in hockey’s second season for the past decade plus.This saccharine version of hockey had become a game-long parade to the penalty box and a resulting battle of special teams, nothing resembling the head-to-head matchups that truly gauged a club’s mettle back when the referees would put the whistles away and just let the players play. To say the lumber was up in yesteryear’s NHL playoff wars would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. There was more chin music than organ music in the stadiums come playoff time back in the day when Philadelphia’s Broad Street Bullies and Boston’s big, bad Bruins ruled the ice. Teams of a nervous persuasion need not have applied, and having more combatants in the sin bin than on the bench was common-place. The 1980s continued the crimson-soaked reputation of the playoffs, when Edmonton and Calgary were just two of the squads going hammer and tong nightly.
Now it looks as if this year the fellas have broken out the whipping stick once again: Violent encounters grabbed the headlines and news clips around the league once the playoffs began. Boston’s Kyle McLaren punched a one-way ticket to La-La Land for Montreal’s Richard Zednik with a vicious elbow to the grille that left the Hab winger in a trifecta of pain, a broken beak, and bloodied, scrambled eggs. This triggered off a “renewal of rivalries,” shall we say, between longtime foes. Between the high sticks and misplaced elbows, the eighth-seeded Canadiens managed to pull off the big-time upset by ousting the top-ranked Bostonians in six gritty games. However, the real fireworks in the first round took place in the Eastern Conference in the Islanders-Maple Leafs series, where the usual icy glares and mean intent boiled over into a full-fledged donnybrook of a seven-game series. Neither side blinked, and the result was old-school, with the teams racking up 10 fighting majors and piling up numerous heavy hits that straddled the fine line between penalties and dirty play. Three of the seven contests saw game-ending melees with all skaters involved. The Isles seemed a bit perturbed by the blows dealt them via the Maple Leafs, who knocked out two of the Islanders’ main men, Michael Peca and Kenny Jonsson, with hits more at place in the junior leagues than in the NHL. The veteran Leafs barely scraped by the spunky New Yorkers in seven dramatic games that were reminiscent of the classic playoff series the two teams staged back in 1978, when the likes of Tiger Williams and Garry Howatt were walking the beat. While not exactly at the red-line level of those epic encounters, this year’s NHL playoffs have rekindled the passions with a bit of that bump-and-grind. Until next time, see ya in the sin bin!
This season’s top playoff pugilists, through the first round:
April 22 Brad Larsen (COL) vs. Ian Laperriere (LA)
Right off the face-off and with a mere 11 ticks left on the clock, these two Energizer bunnies drop the mitts and have at it. They each throw a quick salvo of close-in rights, then they hit the deck as the men in stripes come to break them apart.
April 22 Dan Hinote (COL) vs. Kelly Buchberger (LA)
The game clock might read zero, but we’re not done yet! A game-ending melee breaks out in the corner, and Hinote and Buchberger come out swinging the rights. Buchy gets his man down and lays an extra right cross on Hinote’s grille as they hit the deck, much to the delight of the King faithful.
April 23 Darcy Tucker (TOR) vs. Jeff Blake (NYI)
By now, no doubt, Tucker is Islander public enemy No. 1. The Leaf loony just jumps Blake in this bout, grabbing his man behind the net and firing away. Blake holds on gamely and avoids the main thrust of Tucker’s blows. A multi-player melee ensues, and this series is off and running.
April 23 Gary Roberts (TOR) vs. Brad Isbister (NYI)
Roberts goes after an Isle as the clock expires, and all 10 men on the ice get involved, creating a heaping mass of humanity down in the corner of the rink. Things seem calmed down, but Roberts takes that extra poke at his man, and Isbister comes in hard, as if to say, “There’ll be none of that!” A bevy of Isbister rights sends Roberts down and has the Islander fans cheering wildly.
April 24 Donald Brashear (phi) vs. Chris Phillips (ott) A frustrated Brashear gets his gloves off and his groove on—at the expense of Phillips’s face, that is. When the puck drops, so do the Donald’s gloves, and soon after that, so does Phillips. The Ottawa blueliner is left dented and bloodied after this sneak attack, which is typical Brashear.
April 25 P.J. Stock (BOS) vs. Gino Odjick (MON)
The fight of the playoffs breaks out in this late-game do-si-do at the benches. Right off the draw, Gino wants it badly, but P.J. makes him wait a bit before shedding the leather. The two then engage in a fierce toe-to-toe battle that ends with a toothless Gino smiling wide for the cheering Montreal fans, and P.J. waving his own bit of good cheer toward the crowd with his right hand. Mere moments later, Mr. McLaren lowers the boom on Zednik, and away we go.
April 25 Jeff Norton (BOS) vs. Chad Kilger (MON)
This pair of pugilists come away from the pile that resulted from Zednik’s demise, and they join the club of punch-happy hooligans with a bare-knuckled soiree of their own. Kilger gets Norton’s jersey up and over, and that’s about all she wrote in this one.
April 28 Maple Leafs vs. Islanders
How about a double dip of fistic franticness? Mere minutes remain in Game Six when the stuff hits the fan. The Isles’ Shawn Bates decks Leaf winger Shayne Corson, and Tucker comes to aid his fallen teammate. As Tucker and Bates drop and get down, Corson finds a willing combatant in Islander defenseman Eric Cairns, and the heavyweights take center stage. Cairns has the size and reach advantage and uses them well, ringing Corson’s bell with big right hands a half-dozen times, finally sending the belligerent Leaf down to his backside, much to the crowd’s delight.
April 28 Tie Domi (TOR) vs. Jim Cummins (NYI)
The crowd continues to buzz as these two titans line up beside each other for the game’s last face-off. They shoot a quick glance before ejecting the mittens and throwing the haymakers. A top-notch, rock ’em, sock ’em affair ends with Domi winning a split decision and Cummins looking for the Band-Aids.