For precisely eight minutes of action, the outcome of Game 1 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals was virtually a given. By then, Chris Kreider had cracked open a 2-0 lead for the New York Rangers, converting his team’s fourth power play of the night in the process.
But in the preceding 52 minutes, firsthand witnesses and television viewers were forced to puzzle, ponder and predict. Whether the game was tied or whether one team was safeguarding a one-goal lead, everyone operated under the knowledge that a single play could make a world’s worth of impact.
First, through the first and second intermission, it was a question of who would finally break the ice and how long it would take.
Then Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi beat New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur at the 53-second mark of the third period.
For the ensuing 7:07, it was a question of whether the Devils could nab the equalizer, if New York could dig up an insurance policy or if this one would simply end with a 1-0 final.
This author is frankly confounded by those who paved a glum buildup to this year’s conference finals, citing the obsessive-defensive tendencies of all participating teams, but particularly the Hudson River rivals in the Eastern bracket.
Granted, dazzling scoring plays draw attention from casual fans and novice fans better than any other aspect of hockey. But why does defense have to be dull?
Games like Monday night’s Eastern Conference finals opener or last year’s Eastern Conference finals Game 7 need not be, literally, a turnoff. In fact, there is reason to doubt that they are.
Do you really think anyone sought an alternative form of Friday night entertainment last year when the Boston Bruins took 52 minutes and 27 seconds to finally break the ice en route to a series-clinching, 1-0 victory over Tampa Bay?
Do you really think anyone who had originally planned to watch Monday night’s series opener from start to finish changed plans on the fly before Girardi’s icebreaker?
Logically, a winner needed to be decided at some point. Whose appetite to see that could have possibly lessened?
A shortage of scoring in a high-stakes hockey game need not be likened to a lack of sunshine on the Fourth of July or a dearth of snow at Christmas time. Waiting period after period for someone to break through need not be likened to waiting in line at a Wal-Mart on Black Friday.
As in any sport, the excitement of a postseason hockey matchup is not determined by how offensive or defensive it is. Rather, it is based on how competitive it is.
And on Monday, which saw a narrow 18-17 edge for New York in the shooting gallery after 40 minutes, the Rangers and Devils preserved the scoreless knot until six individuals put their names on the scoresheet. Of the six New York point-getters, three of them nailed a goal and an assist apiece.
The inevitable questions going forward include: “How will the Devils respond for Game 2 on Wednesday?” and “Who is going to break out for them?”
It may be an agonizing proposition for partisan viewers. But Devils and Rangers fans alike ought to know this dirty, poorly-kept secret from the umpteen times their teams did not make it this far. Hockey enthusiasts without a rooting interest take pleasure from what gives pain to rooters and direct participants.
The only time it gets irritating for the general public is when a game goes to multiple overtimes, forcing many to choose between foregoing sleep and waiting until morning to know who the heck won.
Yet, in an ironic twist, there seems to be less widespread dislike for sudden-death showdowns than there is for those games where the third period basically becomes overtime before 60 minutes are up.
So, what’s the problem? Is it that marquee scorers are not getting a chance to help promote the game?
On the contrary, in Game 1, New Jersey’s three even-strength ice-time leaders among forwards were Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac and Dainius Zubrus. For the Rangers, it was Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik and Carl Hagelin.
On this night, they all just happened to be hampered by opposing backcheckers, blueliners and backstops, the last two being not-so-anonymous personalities known as Brodeur and Henrik Lundqvist.
If those two are going to be the story of the series, and it’s a fairly safe assumption that they will, so be it.
As long as the Devils find a way to take a couple of these titanic tangles, thereby prolonging and exponentially intensifying the series, the game cannot complain.