For most, they can only dream about playing in the NHL playoffs.
Each year, 800 or more players suit up in NHL action, and only 16 teams-worth have the opportunity to play in hockey that truly matters.
From there, only 20 men have the opportunity to touch the ice at the same time as hoisting the Holy Grail of Hockey above their heads—the Stanley Cup.
While nothing compares to the feeling of cherishing the chalice of Lord Stanley, some might be surprised as to what a former NHLer and three-time Stanley Cup champion might compare the NHL Playoffs to:
The TV coverage that brings those matches to our homes every night.
Brian Engblom though, despite being distanced from his paying days, still feels the grind of playoffs.
The only day that he and the crew over at VERSUS have had off was the Wednesday in-between the first and second rounds of the NHL playoffs. With so many games to keep track of, there are a lot of long days and a lot of double-headers.
But for a guy who loves the game as much as him, Engblom counts himself lucky to be in the industry. And if he gets tired? Well it’s just as if you’re a player:
“You just go on.”
Engblom has seen a lot of hockey in his time at VERSUS. Alongside Keith Jones, Bill Patrick, and the behind the scenes crew at VERSUS (for whom Engblom has high-praise), the three provide the ins and outs of each series—who’s hot, who’s not, and the injuries hindering your favorite stars.
Coming in to the second round, the crew at VERSUS was faced with the opportunity of following the first-ever matchup between Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin in the post season—a matchup that could propel the already intense rivalry the two share, not only because of the stars’ talents, but because of their ages as well.
“Sidney (Crosby) and Alex (Ovechkin) are the two biggest stars in the league, in the playoffs. There’s nothing like playoff hockey to develop a rivalry, and you need to look no further than Boston going against Montreal (and the history of that matchup).”
Familiarity breeds contempt, and like it did with the two Original Six teams, it seems like it is working with two of the more recent first overall picks.
Contempt could come Washington’s way with regards to the questions over Ovie’s stick curve.
“You can never say never when it comes to a call like that (you never know how desperate a team is). In a key situation, maybe they call him on it (to get the man advantage). The players know if it’s illegal though. You look down in a draw and you see it there, and it sticks out.”
But whether it’s controversy, contempt, or controlling the game, Engblom knows how the stars dictate the pace of the league.
“Sports are star driven no matter the sport. Look at football. I’m no expert, but I watch it, and all I see is Peyton Manning. Whose selling Master Cards? Peyton Manning. Even if he’s not in the playoffs, it’s him and his brother there selling. Advertisers and today’s marketing machines appeal to the stars’ quality, and the star players are who they are.
"Because of that, the leagues would be silly to look past them, especially with the velocity that they both (Ovechkin and Crosby) came into the league with."
Despite their headline-stealing marketing strengths, Engblom is not afraid to look beyond the two stars and their controversies. While questions revolve around who the better skater is and who will play the bigger role as the series stretches on, Engblom’s experiences both on and off the ice have taught him to look at the other players in the series.
Kris Letang—who scored the game-winner Wednesday night—is one of those players he looks at. Letang brings great mobility to Pittsburgh’s defense, and he has the ability to move the puck and skate with (or without) it. The absence of those tools, as well as the simplicity of missing a regular from the lineup, could have been enough to halt a Pittsburgh comeback had Letang missed any extended time.
But while Engblom can look at the headlining series of round two and spot who needs to be better and who will be sorely missed, he also recognizes exciting hockey taking place away from the limelight.
Eric Staal has silently been cementing himself as “the man” in Carolina “ever since their championship in 2006” according the Engblom. He has become one of the most overlooked clutch scores in the game today, and if asked to define a star, Engblom looks no further than the ‘Canes super sniper.
He is also a big reason why Carolina won a tough game in Boston (alongside the play of Cam Ward), and brings with him the kind of aura that doesn’t allow you to count out the Hurricanes.
Despite Boston having trouble with the Hurricanes (in falling behind 2-1 in the series), Engblom said that it is not necessarily a lack of initiative or quality coaching.
“The coaches help to motivate, but it’s a ‘team attitude’ that really gets you there, which is usually developed during the regular season. It’s more on the players. Sometimes teams come out and it’s just not there—that’s why we call it coming out flat.
“It’s something the stars have learned how to cope with and utilize. You have to be afraid to lose, but relaxed enough and ready enough to play. It’s the star players that can strike that balance.
"Sometimes players are too relaxed. Then it becomes clinical and they can fall behind.”
Despite the mentality playing a large part in results, there are always those who defy the odds with a ground-breaking performance, and those who shy away from the spotlight.
So who has caught Engblom’s eye so far?
“(Simeon) Varlamov has been a break-out star for the Caps, he’s done some great things. Chad LaRose has been great for Carolina. He’s usually a depth forward, but he’s brought some big energy, scored points, and played some big minutes for them so far.
“Michael Ryder has been really filling the net for the Boston Bruins, and David Bolland and Dustin Byfuglien have been big for Chicago. Contributions are not always measured by points, but by playing important minutes, their tenacity, and being physical.”
On the other side, “Hossa still needs to hit that level, but he’s the easiest guy to point the finger at because he’s a star. Datsyuk has been having trouble too, but he’s a playmaker. He’s set up his teammates nicely, but (Jonas) Hiller has just been stopping them.’
“Viktor Kozlov comes and goes for the Caps, while Pittsburgh needs all-around production, and not just from Malkin. They need guys like Staal (Jordan), Kunitz, and Sykora to step up. In Carolina, Erik Cole needs to start driving wide with the puck. He brings speed and power to that team, but he needs to start using it to take some pressure off Staal.”
The aforementioned Hiller and Varlamov could easily be counted amongst the players who have been ‘heating it up in the playoffs’. Both are in a dead-heat for the runaway performance of the playoffs, and they have gotten there by playing phenomenal hockey.
Both have been consistent, and they have been great at not allowing the soft goal.
But as Engblom points out, they will both be missing key pieces in front of them, as both James Wisniewski and Jon Erskine are walking wounded.
Wisniewski’s efficient passing and Erskine’s quiet, yet solid play have been big reasons as to why those two teams—and their two goalies—have been so good these playoffs.
But with all of the feel-good stories surrounding players that we have heard little or nothing about, the same question and concern keeps arising in playoff time, and it is always about officiating.
Why can’t it be consistent?
Engblom is one of the few personalities who will give you a realistic answer about that qualm:
“Out of every sport, the NHL officials’ jobs are the most difficult to handle because of the continuity. In football, you’ve got one play, but hockey five or six minutes can go by without a whistle, and it's always different guys leaving and coming on the ice.
“Mistakes happen ever year. The goal should’ve counted (Marian Hossa against Anaheim in game three), but it’s part of the game and it happens all the time—regular season or playoffs. That’s the way sports are; you have to be a big boy about it and move on.”
But while officiating is always going to have that human element, Engblom says the changes the NHL has made in the past, and might be considering, are all for the better.
Four-on-four overtime is one of those changes that has been suggested.
“The NHL is going in the right direction. If they begin to look at four-on-four overtime, then they’re solving a problem because the game loses something if it goes on too long. I’d be fine with it after two overtimes—in fact, I’d be fine with it after the first overtime.
“The NHL has displayed a willingness to change for the better since the lockout, and player fatigue and fan interest in long games are big factors (if they go in this direction). At a certain point everyone says ‘let’s get it over with and get a winner’.”
As for how the playoffs themselves will finish up, Engblom still hasn’t changed his stance.
“I said Boston versus Detroit in the Stanley Cup final and both teams are still in it, so why change now?”
Like the teams he hopes to see in the Stanley Cup final, Engblom has stuck with a winning formula his entire career, and has one of the best jobs in the world to show for it.
Bryan Thiel is a correspondent for HockeyBarn.com and an NHL Community Leader and Senior Writer for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.