For the Month of May, Nothing Can Match Hockey Playoffs

By John Feinstein
Special to
Monday, May 7, 2007; 11:39 PM

Roger Clemens was on the front page of Monday's New York Times. Above the fold. His decision to come back and pitch for the New York Yankees for about $1 million a start (seriously) was deemed more important by the decision-makers at the newspaper than any news coming out of Iraq, the Presidential debates or the Pope's trip to Brazil.

Last week, Sports Illustrated's cover featured Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. with the line, "The Fight To Save Boxing." On Sunday, most newspapers around the country led their sports sections with stories about The Kentucky Derby. Street Sense will now become the 29th horse to be billed as the sports' potential savior since Affirmed completed the last Triple Crown in 1978.

As it turned out, The Fight to Save Boxing came and went with no one getting knocked down and no sign that boxing will be saved anytime soon. The jury is still out on Street Sense, but he has a lot of turns to make before he can become a historic horse. And Clemens, who won't actually pitch for at least another three weeks, can go 20-0 and the Yankees still won't catch the Red Sox if the rest of New York's pitchers can't stay healthy.

In the midst of all this hype, the Stanley Cup playoffs will begin its version of The Final Four later this week with The Buffalo Sabres taking on the Ottawa Senators in the East and The Anaheim Ducks facing the Detroit Red Wings in the West.

The hockey playoffs will thus be a big story in Buffalo, Ottawa, Anaheim (maybe) and Detroit. That's pretty much it. The rest of the country will be focusing on Clemens' first minor league start; Street Sense's workouts before The Preakness Stakes; the NBA playoffs -- although, based on TV ratings, not so much anymore -- and how Tiger Woods looks as he prepares for the U.S. Open.

Hockey is, unfortunately, a niche sport in this country, slightly more popular than soccer in most places. Even that might change with the arrival of David Beckham to play in Major League Soccer this summer, not so much because Beckham's a great player, but because he'll be bringing his wife, Posh Spice, with him. Sadly for the soccer nuts, the over-under on Beckham getting hurt is probably about four games.

What's really too bad about people not watching the hockey playoffs is that they are missing truly great theater. Because hockey flies under the radar most of the time, it is easy to forget just how dramatic playoff hockey can be. The just-ended series between the Sabres and New York Rangers was an absolute classic, especially the two overtime games. In the first one -- game 3 -- the Rangers were fighting to stay in the series (down 2-0) and survived a couple of Buffalo power plays in overtime before finally scoring late in the second overtime for a 2-1 win. Madison Square Garden hasn't rocked with noise like that -- no exaggeration-- since 1994 when the Rangers won their last cup. Okay, maybe it got a bit loud when the Knicks made the NBA Finals during the lockout-shortened 1999 season, but not like this.

Hockey fans are rabid like no other sports fans. They bleed for their teams and feel an attachment to them like no other sports fans; perhaps because they understand that there are fewer of them, perhaps because hockey players remain the most accessible professional athletes we have. Hockey fans feel as if they know their heroes.

Game five of Sabres-Rangers was just as dramatic. This time it was Buffalo on the ropes, trailing 1-0 late, playing at home with the series tied, 2-2. If the Rangers could win, they would go home with a chance to wrap up the series. It didn't happen.

Chris Drury, one of the true good guys in sports, tied the game with 7.7 seconds left and the Sabres escaped in overtime. It was absolutely thrilling.

So was the comeback of the Red Wings in game 4 in San Jose the night before. Trailing the series, 2-1, and the game, 2-0, they were in serious trouble. But they also rallied to tie and then won in overtime, the start of three straight victories to win the series.

One thing people should understand about overtime playoff hockey: There's nothing like it in sports. Only in hockey does the game end -- BOOM! -- in an instant. One rush, one mistake, one slip by the goalie -- and it's over. It doesn't happen that way in basketball or in football or in baseball. Oh sure, those games can end on a single play, but frequently they don't. In hockey, they ALWAYS do and you sit on the edge of your seat not knowing when that moment may come.

People say, with some justification, that hockey isn't a good TV sport because the puck is hard to follow. Nowadays though, with better camera angles and lots of replays, the game has become far more TV-friendly. The problem now is that so few people get Versus, which televises most of the playoffs (NBC has a game on Saturday and a game on Sunday) and even those who get it may not know where to find it on their cable or satellite systems.

Better times for hockey may be ahead, though. There are two genuine superstars on the horizon: Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin. Unfortunately for the NHL, Ovechkin's Capitals didn't make the playoffs this year and Crosby's Penguins went out in five quick games to Ottawa in the first round. But both teams are young and improving and if they can start to make a dent in the playoffs in the near future, attention will be paid because each star has the potential to be truly great. Both also have appealing personalities, something the game hasn't really had in its top player since Wayne Gretzky retired. Yes, Mario Lemieux was greatly respected, especially after he beat Hodgkin's Disease to return to the game, but he was never all that comfortable in the limelight.

This isn't to say that hockey is going to replace football as the national pastime anytime soon. Chances are it will never rise too far above the level it sits at right now because of the TV issues and because players are now required to wear helmets, which takes some of the sex appeal out of the game. No one is arguing for helmets to go away -- they're a necessary evil -- but once upon a time, hockey was extremely popular with women and you have to believe players racing down the ice, hair flying, had something to do with that. There was a time when it seemed as if half the Rangers were dating supermodels. Even the World Hockey Association team in Cincinnati had what was known as, "The Bunny Line," because all three players were dating Playboy bunnies.

All of that aside, there truly is wonderful drama in playoff hockey. In Detroit, where they consider it a right, not a privilege, to win the Stanley Cup, fans are wondering if this is the year the aging (they're always aging) Red Wings put aside recent postseason failures and win another cup. In Anaheim and Ottawa -- both franchises founded in the early 1990s -- fans are still waiting for those teams to win their first championship.

The best story, though, is in Buffalo, where the Sabres have been close on a number of occasions during their 38-year history, but have never lifted Lord Stanley's Cup. If there's ever been a city that deserves a championship, it is Buffalo. Think about it. The most brutal winters anywhere (the inch count on snow this past winter was well into three digits); four straight Super Bowls defeats beginning with Scott Norwood's wide right field goal attempt in 1991; and nothing resembling a championship since the Bills won the American Football League title 45 years ago. That's a long drought in a cold town.

So here's my recommendation for the rest of this month: Put Clemens aside until he actually starts pitching and let the NBA guys sort themselves out over the next six weeks. Pull up a chair, watch some hockey and pull for the Sabres. The sport, the team and the town are all worthy of our time and our support. What's more, it will be fun. A lot more fun than anything else going on in sports right now. Seriously.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company