Quick start will serve teams well

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:50 AM ET

You've seen it replayed ad nauseum: the Maple Leafs' Game 7 overtime goal against the Red Wings in 1993, still celebrated as a highwater mark in the post-Harold Ballard era.

But instead of pointing the way to a Stanley Cup, Nik Borschevsky's famous tip might just as well have foreshadowed the end of the Leafs' run that year. By the time the Leafs got to the end of the third round, all in the full seven games, they'd lost the Western Conference championship game to the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings.

Since 1993, no National Hockey League team has won a championship when its first-round series has gone the distance. Only two Cup winners have survived a seven-game opening set since the league moved to a four-round, best-of-seven format in 1987 -- the Pittsburgh Penguins (1991 and '92) and the Edmonton Oilers (1990).

When veterans talk about the playoffs being a two-month marathon, they aren't kidding.

"It's good luck if you can get that rest after the first round, because the physical toll is tenfold as the playoffs go on," said Bob Errey, who was part of both Pittsburgh Cup teams before becoming a team broadcaster. "Even with the great teams, things don't always go the way you want. There will always be the bumps in the road at the start."

In 2004, the Tampa Bay Lightning did have to play two seven-game series en route to a title, but those came after losing just one game in the first two rounds. With a combined 25 goals and 10 against, they beat the New York Islanders in five games and swept the Montreal Canadiens.

Down 3-2 to Calgary in the Cup final, the early success likely enabled them to find the will to win twice.

"In today's NHL, I'd say it's extremely important to get out of the first two rounds in 12 games or (fewer)," Hockey Night In Canada analyst Harry Neale said. "I think it would be ideal to get three or four days of rest between series, but not a single day more because you don't want to get too inactive before playing again."

None of these lessons has been lost on the Leafs. In the Mats Sundin era, they have gone to seven games in the first round four times since 1995 and six in all others with the exception of a shocking sweep of Ottawa in 2001. The latter result was remarkable, just the third sweep in club history.

No wonder Sundin has been preaching for years that the Leafs should make first place in the conference a serious goal, as it theoretically means an easier first-round draw. Toronto, however, has seen fit to assume the underdog role in the early going.

The Leafs even became giant killers in the 1980s, dusting the Chicago Blackhawks in 1986, sweeping a best-of-five first-round series after Chicago finished almost 30 points ahead in the regular season.

The San Jose Sharks brought down the 1999-2000 Presidents' Trophy-winning St. Louis Blues in a first-round, seven-game series and six years earlier, stunned the 100-point Detroit Red Wings after coming into the playoffs as the eighth seed.

"I was on that Sharks team in '94 and you could just feel that there was so much less pressure on us," Errey said.

"It's hard to think of Tampa Bay as an underdog in the first round, but I think they'll use that against Ottawa."

Indeed, this year could see another first-place club fall in the opening rounds, but the salary cap, parity, interdivision schedules and a rewired points system has created artificial gaps between first and eighth in both conferences.

"I can't think of a year where the gap between any of the teams was this small," Neale said. "In the West, there is a bit of room between Detroit and Edmonton because the Wings have a misleading record (from a friendly schedule in their division that gives them eight games each against weakling Columbus, St. Louis and Chicago).

"But I still like them and the people who watched the Dallas Stars more often this year will tell you they are the best team in that conference.

"In the East, I don't think Ottawa is the same confident team it was a month ago. I'm not saying they would lose in the first round, but if (eighth-place Tampa Bay) can go in there on a roll, it might be tough for the Senators to get their act together.

"If the playoffs had started in January, I would've taken Ottawa to win the Cup, but confidence can be a funny thing. You can't buy it, you can't trade for it, but you can lose it."


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