Sports

Down Goes Brown: The 2022 playoffs have been amazing and I’m so confused

The NHL is good right now, and I’m confused and frightened.

This is mostly new ground for me. As long-time readers know, I’m never shy about aiming criticism at the NHL, and pointing out the product’s flaws when they become apparent. Critics would say that I complain about the NHL basically all the time. I’d respond that I only criticize when it’s actually deserved, which is to say basically all the time.

But not now, because the 2022 playoffs have been good.

Like, really good. So, so good. And I find this deeply unsettling.

The first round delivered seven very good series out of eight, with five of those going the full seven games, which is almost unheard of. We had one team come all the way back from down 3-1 in the series, and two more come from down 3-2. We were teased with what could have been an epic upset in the Washington/Florida series. The Leafs and Lightning was great theater and delivered the result that most of you seemed to be rooting for. And even the one sweep served a purpose, with the Avalanche taking out the Predators with the sort of dominating trouncing that established a clear favorite for the rounds to come.

The round ended with a wild weekend, one that served up three Game 7s on a Saturday night (one short of the record), then two more on Sunday that both went to overtime. That was the first time in 25 years we’ve had two Game 7 overtimes on the same day, and these two both ended with a team’s biggest offensive star scoring the winning goal.

Oh, and that entire round unfolded with a perfectly constructed schedule, one that saw each and every series playing out on alternating days with no gaps or back-to-backs. The league even seemed to realize that they could stagger start times, meaning there was pretty much always playoff hockey on whenever you wanted it.

It would have been impossible for the second round to match the first, but then … well, it almost did, right? We had another sweep, but while the Lightning and Panthers rematch was a bit of a dud, it was still a fascinating storyline to see the little brother spend the year bulking up just to get sand kicked in his face yet again. The Blues gave the Avalanche everything they could handle, including a Game 5 win that may have been the most dramatic of the playoffs so far. The Rangers and Hurricanes are going to a Game 7 tonight, and the series is already close to a classic, with Carolina’s home/road splits hitting never-before-seen territory.

And of course, the big one: After 31 years, we finally got a Battle of Alberta. Then the action somehow lived up to the hype, if not more. That opening game will live in infamy, and for once it’s going to be the good kind.

That’s a solid month’s worth of hockey, and just about all of it was fantastic. We had lots of goals, continuing a trend from the regular season. There were some epic comebacks, enough that we got used to feeling like a two- or even three-goal lead wasn’t some insurmountable deficit. There was enough bad blood to keep everything spicy, but nothing that went so far overboard that it hung over a series. For once, it just felt like everything that can be fun about the NHL clicked into place.

Look at all of that. I’m pretty sure that’s the most words I’ve ever strung together in a row about the NHL without ranting about how much I hated something. What’s happening to me? Have I mellowed in my old age? Did I secretly get hired on as the league’s PR guy? There’s got to be something I can grumble about.

Uh…those CGI ads on the ice are kind of weird, I guess.

Yeah, I can’t do it. Or rather, I can do it, but I don’t want to, because it wouldn’t be deserved. It would feel forced. I’d be playing a character, waving my cane at the world beyond my porch just because that’s my comfort zone. It would feel cheap.

The last month hasn’t been perfect, but really, what’s your big complaint? We could have done with a bit more overtime, I guess. The early days of Round 1 had a few too many blowouts. There hasn’t been a true Cinderella story like we’re used to seeing, although those were probably getting overdone anyway. And Sidney Crosby’s injury put a bit of a damper on that Rangers comeback.

Really, the only obvious issue with the last few weeks is that the Battle of Alberta only lasted five games instead of what it should have gone, which was 27 games. We can all agree on that one. And yes, part of the reason the series was cut short was that the Flames had a goal waved off that maybe should have counted. I think Calgary got screwed, although not everyone does, and you can’t say that one call costs you a series if you lose in five games. Still, I think Blake Coleman’s goal should have counted. Even in an ideal year, we can’t escape the mandatory officiating controversy.

But even there, we’re doing pretty well. Typically by this point, we’d have had a half-dozen major controversies, and everyone would be calling for new rules and expanded review and whatever else. This year has certainly seen a few missed calls, and a few others that were fine but that homers had to scream about anyway. But for the most part, we’d dodged any true showstoppers until the Coleman kick. Sure, Leaf fans are still mad about the interference no-goal, and Blues fans think Nazem Kadri ran their goalie, and there was that weird helmet thing that cost the Penguins. We’ve had the usual arguments over goalie interference, and offside review somehow still exists. But we haven’t seen any true debacles, or any calls that single-handedly decided a series like we had with the Knights and Sharks a few years ago. The refs even called penalties for a while in Round 1, which was what everyone said they wanted, before stopping later in the round, which is what everyone actually wants.

When even the officiating is merely making you angry instead of apoplectic, it’s been a good postseason.

Is this the part where I have to grudgingly give credit to the league for making it all happen? Maybe, but I’m not quite there yet. Much like the regular-season scoring boost that nobody could quite explain, I’m not sure that what we’re seeing is the result of the NHL actually doing anything. I’ll give them credit for the scheduling, and maybe they had a word with the referees about occasionally paying attention. But a lot of this just feels like good luck, or maybe the absence of bad luck, as opposed to anything the NHL willed into place.

If so, that’s fine. We can take that. Hockey is the greatest sport in the world when it’s working, and right now it works. If that’s just a happy accident, well, let’s put the emphasis on the happy.

And here’s the part that feels impossible, but somehow isn’t: There’s a chance it’s all about to get even better. We’ve got a Game 7 to watch tonight, with a rested Lightning team waiting in the wings. We haven’t seen a three-peat in the NHL since the Islanders of the 1980s; it’s something that even Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers and Mario Lemieux’s Penguins never managed. But we could see it this year, because the Lightning are a mini-dynasty that looks locked in on scratching out that “mini” part. We’ll either get to see them in a rematch of last year’s meeting with the Hurricanes, or we’ll see a battle of the two best goaltenders in the world against the Rangers. Either one should be fantastic.

But that’s not even the main event. That comes out West, where we get Connor McDavid against Nathan MacKinnon in the single best head-to-head battle between superstar forwards we’ve seen this late in the postseason since … when? Gretzky and Lemieux never met in the playoffs, Lemieux and Mark Messier only got as late as Round 2, and the same was true of Alex Ovechkin and Crosby. You might have to look back to the Wings and Avs, or maybe even those Oiler and Islander Finals. And it’s not just a meeting of two big names on paper, because McDavid has gone absolutely supernova over the last few weeks, while MacKinnon has looked unstoppable on more than a few occasions. Mix in an injured Leon Draisaitl still racking up points, Cale Makar conjuring up highlight reels, plenty of supporting talent and shaky goaltending, and this series should be incredible.

So let’s end this gushing fanboy screed in the only place we could: What could go wrong?

Look, we’re all thinking it. So how does this all end badly? Are we getting that big blown call tonight, or are they saving it for the Final? Will one of those superstars get hurt, depriving us of a true showdown? Is somebody going to do something stupid that deserves a suspension that they won’t get because it’s the playoffs, and we’ll all fight about it for a week? Will the hockey gods pull the rug out from under a high-scoring season and deliver a bunch of cautious 3-0 duds?

Perhaps. It could be all of those things, and we’re a few weeks away from reminiscing about the good old days when we were enjoying this postseason. It’s the NHL — dumb stuff happens, often at the worst possible time.

But it hasn’t happened yet. So far, the 2022 playoffs have been about as close to straight-As we could imagine. We don’t know how long it’s going to last, but we might as well enjoy it while we can.

(Picture: Sergei Belski/USA Today)

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