When hockey fans tell you, and they will tell you, that playoff hockey is the best thing in sports, what they’re imagining is that every game, every series, looks like Game 2 of the Avalanche and Knights. The thing is, of course, it doesn’t, and a lot of series are just noisy slogs as coaches really up the defensive game. Forcing dump-ins, collapsing into the middle of the defensive zone, chipping it out, and you get a nonstop parade of defensemen clanking shots off opposing skaters.
But sometimes it does. Sometimes you get two teams that are good, and are fast, and want to play on the front foot, and are loaded with talent, and then playoff hockey matches what it’s been billed as by the annoying guy in your office for years.
And it rarely has looked like last night. The Avs and Knights might be the two best teams in the league, certainly the two fastest, and thanks to a geographical oddity and a one-year realignment, have crossed paths in the second round. Game 1 was an utter destruction of the Knights by the Avs, but Game 2 is what we’d been hoping for all season. As soon as these two were lined up in the West Division for this rearranged season, fans dreamt of this.
The Knights were the dominant team for the last two periods, but Avs goalie Phillip Grubauer put on a show. The Knights also had a strange courtship with Grubauer’s right post, dinging it three times in an apparent attempt to wake it from its permanent slumber. Whereas the Knights were a step slow in Game 1 and paid severely for it, they were everywhere for the last 40 minutes of regulation. They might be the only team that can pressure the Avs into mistakes consistently, because any other team that tries it will just watch Makar, Toews, MacKinnon, or a few others, mockingly skate around and through them to pilfer chances and shots at the other end. The Knights can get there before the Avs can squirt away.
The Avs attempted to bring their center back lower to help out their pressured defense, but all that did was cause traffic jams and confusion that led to turnovers. That doesn’t mean they were helpless, because when they did break out they gave Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury some headaches as well. Whichever direction the play was going, it was at a pace and fury rarely seen in the league. A true classic, and an excellent example of what the sport can be.
But will that be the biggest story out of this night of playoff action? No, of course it fucking won’t, because hockey will always hockey on ya.
So here’s what will be the headlines, yet another cheap shot that maimed a player for no good reason other than the sport can’t get out of its goddamn way.
In another setting, at another time of game, this would probably just be a charge. But it’s not here. Mark Scheifele knows exactly what he’s doing. He was already on tilt thanks to some calls that didn’t go his way earlier in the period, and some scrums after whistles he was in, and the fact that Jets essentially got their dicks kicked in. So he skates half the ice, knows he’s not going to get to Jake Evans before he scores an empty-netter, and makes no play at the puck whatsoever. He was getting his pound of flesh for his perceived slights, and he might have ruined a career to do it. Certainly could have. This is viscous, selfish, and dangerous. Scheifele shouldn’t touch the ice for this series again.
And this is the bullshit you have to put up with if you’re a hockey fan that wants better. There are so many stories we should be talking about, even beyond what this Avs-Knights series could be. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s great play, Taylor Hall proving that whole Sabres thing was just a Sabres-inspired malaise, Carey Price, take your pick. It’s what any other sport would get to focus on. Maybe if more players could actually respect a fellow professional like Scheifele’s teammate Nikolaj Ehlers did when Evans was prone on the ice and out. This is the “camaraderie” hockey people always bleat about but never actually exhibit.
But no, in hockey, every spring we have to put on our hazmat suits and wade through the muck of hits like this, or Nazem Kadri’s, or the Knights acting like babies in Game 1 when they were getting their heads handed to them, or the Panthers chasing after the Lightning, or whatever else.
It’s beyond old, and at this point I have given up hope that the league will ever realize that it’s a problem.
The Knicks’ magical ride came to an end, with Trae Young taking his bow at center court to cap it off. While Young suffered some horrific treatment, what this all taught us is that deep down, New York loves a villain. They may wail about all the things that have happened to them — Jordan, Miller, and now Young — but New York loves a player who can come into that cauldron and stuff it right back down their throats. They need it. They crave it. Knicks fans may chant “Fuck Trae Young!” but I’ll bet three-quarters of them were smiling when he took those bows. Everyone needs an adversary to bring them to a higher level. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of lifting players to new heights and attention that they wouldn’t get anywhere else. Maybe it’s just been so long since they had a hero of their own.
The Garden is the best stage for performers, no matter who they play for. It is Broadway, after all. New York would like to think it can make any player shrink from the moment. They can only salute when one rises above it.