The NHL playoffs have arrived, and not a moment too soon. After a regular season marred by ham-handed scorers, fighting goalies, skates in the crease, contract holdouts, injuries that shelved star players (Paul Kariya, Eric Lindros, Mike Modano) for a month or more and the sophomoric high jinks of U.S. Olympians in Nagano, the 1997-98 highlight tape could have been shot with an MRI machine and a security camera. All of which makes this Stanley Cup tournament so critical. If the postseason is magic, it can make the regular season disappear.
The playoffs have their own rhythm: Teams play almost every other day, with short practices and more film work than Matt Damon. There is a passion to these games, a sense of purpose far more noble than earning money. After all, if a team needs, say, 25 games to win the Cup, each player's cut of the $1.75 million winner's share works out to little more than $3,000 a game—hardly a bounty for eight weeks' work. But most NHL players revere the postseason because it triggers memories of childhood, when they played for kicks and a trophy at the end-of-season banquet, although not one that weighed 35 pounds and had the names Howe, Richard, Orr and Gretzky engraved on it.
This is our seven-step program for winning the Cup. (For Pierre McGuire's analysis of the first-round matchups see page 106.)
1. Avoid Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek in the early rounds
Be afraid. Be very afraid. Swift but smallish Buffalo has a gang of forwards who all look as if they wear 40 regular, a spotty defense and a bleak playoff history of only two series victories since 1984, but Hasek can win one or two rounds by himself. After finishing with 13 shutouts and a .932 save percentage—Hasek has topped the latter category for five straight seasons—the human Gumby has validated himself as the world's best player. (That's a tag hung on him by Gretzky, an expert on the subject.) The only thing missing on Hasek's résumé is a memorable playoff performance.
Last year he was sidelined by a mild knee sprain in Game 3 of the Sabres' first-round series against the Senators, an injury some believed he could have played with. That triggered a bizarre incident in which Hasek punched a reporter who had suggested the goalie's problem was more mental than physical. Playing without Hasek, Buffalo went on to beat Ottawa, then lost to Philadelphia. However, his gold medal performance for the Czech Republic in the Olympics removed any lingering doubts about his nerve.
"These playoffs are really important for Dominik," says Bruins coach Pat Burns. "With that contract he recently signed [a three-year, $23 million extension] and what happened last year, he's still got something to prove. But he's at the top of his game. He's like an excellent pitcher. Get him some runs, he wins. The Sabres know that if they get one goal, they might win. If they get two, they usually do win."
2. Come up with an unsung hero
Blues coach Joel Quenneville says that in the playoffs your best players have to be your best players—logic as circular as a Hasek goose egg—but few teams have won a Stanley Cup without help from unlikely sources. Grinding forwards Joe Kocur, a former beer leaguer, and Darren McCarty each scored an artistic goal in last year's Cup finals for the champion Red Wings. Those two players joined a list of small-timers who came through big time in the past dozen years, including Brian Skrudland, who scored a record nine seconds into overtime for the Canadiens in Game 2 of the 1986 finals; Petr Klima, who was buried deep on the Oilers' bench in Game 1 of the '90 finals until he was finally given a shift and scored at 55:13 of overtime; John Druce, who spent a third of the '89-90 season in the minors, then scored 14 goals in 15 playoff games for the Capitals, including four game-winners; Stéphane Matteau, whose wraparound goal in double overtime of Game 7 in the '94 semifinals against the Devils allowed the long-suffering Rangers to play for the Cup; and Randy McKay, who had eight playoff goals in New Jersey's Cup run in '95, three more than he scored in the regular season.
"You know other players are going to have to carry you a little because your stars are going to be checked [very closely] in the playoffs," says Kings coach Larry Robinson, who finished his 20-year Hall of Fame career with Los Angeles. "I remember when we played the Oilers in '92, and Edmonton put Esa Tikkanen on Gretzky. The coaching staff here played Gretzky 28 or 30 minutes a game. Tikkanen almost single-handedly controlled him, and the Oilers won, a perfect example of how dangerous it is to expect one guy or one line to carry you. If our [Jozef] Stumpel line is being checked, I'm going to look to my second and third lines."