The Cup: Gotta love it

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:41 AM ET

Let the U.S. have its opening day at the ball park, with the band playing. In this country, spring starts when the first playoff pool draft number is picked from the hat.

The Stanley Cup playoffs get under way tonight -- again, without the Maple Leafs -- but there are plenty more reasons why the National Hockey League post-season is so compelling:

1. DREAM ON

Just as every boy and girl can grow up to be prime minister or president, any team with a clean slate the first week in April can win the Stanley Cup.

"In my day, you knew you had to go through Edmonton," said Jacques Demers, who coached the Red Wings to two Western finals in the late 1980s and won the Cup with the '93 Montreal Canadiens.

"Now the New York Islanders can legitimately, say: 'If we get in, we could do it.' You look at the Oilers last year and the Flames before that.

"Once the snow melts, everyone still in the top 16 feels they have a chance.

"A coach can always sell his plan better in the playoffs. In Detroit and Montreal, we would wrap up our last practice before playoffs with a highlight film showing everybody doing something good from the regular season. There would be a Steve Yzerman goal, a big Patrick Roy save, a great pass, and even a Bob Probert fight or Joey Kocur taking a run at someone. The excitement would build and they'd all leave that room yelling: 'Yeah, yeah, let's do it!'

"We'd start a board marked with 16 wins and scratch them off as we went. Before you knew it, it was down to four."

2. REAL OVERTIME

Suddenly, the shootout seems like such a wussy way to end a hard-fought contest. You start the game with six men, so end with six and to hang if it lasts until the next morning.

Overtime drama has been around since 1919, when Odie Cleghorn scored the first one for Montreal over the Seattle Metropolitans. There's Mud Bruneteau, Ken Doraty, Jack McLean, Petr Sykora and Keith Primeau, who all scored in games that went 70 minutes of extra time or longer.

3. WHO ARE THOSE GUYS?

Playoff time gives the NHL's rank and file a chance at everlasting fame. Just take a look at the Bill Barilko banner at the ACC or mention the name John Druce.

Harry Meeking of the Toronto Arenas had the first playoff hat trick in 1918 and, 78 years later, penalty-killing specialist John Madden had one of only four hat tricks last spring. Jamie Langenbrunner shared top billing with Scott Niedermayer in 2003 with 18 playoff points.

The list of Cup-winning goal-scorers the past 10 years includes Ruslan Fedotenko and Mike Rupp.

4. FIRST-ROUND UPSETS

The Wings have had three Cups in the past 10 years, but might have made it seven had four of their Central Division title seasons not ended before the snow melted.

The Wings and St. Louis Blues are among recent President's Trophy winners who cashed out after one round, lending credence to the theory that the team that hacks its way to eighth spot in the final weeks has an advantage on the 100 point-plus coaster.

Beware Wade Dubielewicz.

5. BOB, HARRY, RON & DON

A game almost every night through the first round. Hockey Night In Canada's home viewer TV ratings jump 20% to 30% in playoffs in the big markets, often rising to more than two million in later rounds if a Canadian club survives. Bars and restaurants aren't counted in the ratings.

The warmer weather in May can dent the numbers, but a compelling story, say Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, can hold viewer interest into June. As of yet, HNIC's fantasy finish of a Toronto-Vancouver seventh game on a Saturday night has yet to materialize.

6. PLAYOFF POOLS

Studying every team's fourth line while sifting through mountains of stats and back copies of The Hockey News. Whether to adopt the Gretzky Rule, the guy in the Sittler sweater who picks all Leafs, the guy who blurts in the fourth round if Crosby is still available. Trying to figure how long a strained MCL will keep a player out. Trying to keep the beer and pizza from spilling on your list.

7. BRINGING STANLEY HOME

The last time a Canadian team won the Cup was the 1993 Habs. Since then, the Canucks, Flames and Oilers have all lost seven-game finals and the Leafs fell three times in the conference final.

"I was the last coach to win it, but it's not a title I'd like to hang on to," said Demers. "I'm too much of a proud Canadian. This could be Vancouver's year with (Roberto) Luongo in net and Ottawa has been due."


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