There exists a madman’s fever dream in which we all take part. Each year, kings take up arms against sharks, the stars themselves do battle with the wild, and ducks hunt predators across a frozen phantasm.
The NHL Playoffs–the most exciting, thrilling, aneurysm-inducing spectacle in American professional sports–are upon us. The pundits are punditting and the analysts are analyzing, but you don’t need to worry about any of that.
All you need to worry about is Crooked Scoreboard’s guide to the Most Interesting Matchups of the NHL Playoffs. Pencils out, gloves off, and let’s get to it, kids.
Capitals vs. Flyers
The matchup of the top and bottom seeds in the Eastern Conference could be fairly called a David-and-Goliath battle, if Goliath were the seat of the power in the western world, and David had a bit of a drinking problem and couldn’t quite pronounce “gubernatorial.”
These are two teams that hate each other, their rivalry dating back to 1800 when Washington usurped Philadelphia as the nation’s capital, and a scorned Philadelphia was all, “Whatever, America. Your new capital is a swamp–it’s always wet.” Exacerbating this mid-Atlantic municipal fracas was the convention of placing Philadelphia teams with Washington teams in divisional sports; the Redskins and Eagles, the Wizards and Sixers, and the Nationals and Phillies are all division rivals. So goading Philadelphia fans and Washington fans into hating one another is like coaxing pigs to eat.
Keep an eye out for a few particular matchups in this series, including Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin versus Flyers captain Claude Giroux. Both are extraterrestrially talented goal-scorers, both have funny teeth, and both have names that present a challenge to opposing hecklers.
Kings vs. Sharks
“Hockey, in California?,” exclaims your grandfather’s grandfather, who still writes in “Dick Nixon” every November. Well, yes, Pawpaw: the first round of the Western Conference features a showdown between Pacific Division rivals the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings.
Don’t let the Golden State’s shine blind you to the top-notch hockey being played here. The Sharks are perennial contenders, lurking undetected just beneath the surface like…uh, like….some kind of predatory animal. Maybe a methed-out baboon or something, I don’t know. The point is, the Sharks’ roster is deep, dangerous, and unexpectedly explosive. They are the Deep Horizon offshore oil rig of NHL teams. With so many of their stars still seeking their first Stanley Cup, this third-best Bay Area city (hi, Oakland!) could make its move these playoffs.
On the other side, you have the Los Angeles Kings. Wayne Gretzky, Marcel Dionne, Barry Melrose– these giants of the sport have left their sweaty fingerprints on the franchise. The Kings have won two Stanley Cups in the last four years, and with Kobe Bryant finally finished taking his put-to-pasture lap like a sexually aggressive Secretariat, the Staples Center’s other tenant can finally step into the spotlight.
I mean, the Clippers did fire their racist owner. It’s their time.
Sidney Crosby vs. the Playoff Beard
As my good friends at PuckBuddys.com once said, “I had a playoff beard once; I took her to the Eastern Conference Finals.” This is not that kind of playoff beard.
Sidney Crosby is many things: possibly the best hockey player alive, recipient of latently sexist opposing chants, an extremely good playmaking center, and a man with facial hair like high-desert brush.
Sidney Crosby cannot grow a beard. He can bring forth a mustache that vaguely resembles a toothbrush you’d have thrown out a long time ago for being in a state of open rebellion, but he cannot grow a beard. Does this make him less of a man? Probably, if you ask your sexist friends. What it does make him is a sore thumb sticking out from a powerful clenched fist of righteous, full beards; beards with pickup trucks and concealed carry permits and Merle Haggard albums.
If Crosby can continue to elevate his play to the level of the true superstar that he is, it may just be enough to overcome the insurmountable deficit his derelict follicles present. But even if it does: is that even a victory worth having?
Fans vs. Promotional Giveaways
How do you solve a problem like arenas? How do you catch a crowd and pin it down?
Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes not withstanding, the NHL playoffs are the season of promotional giveaways at arenas all across this great land. Most are fairly innocuous: free pizza, corporate-branded shirts, perhaps a noisemaker or two. These are all in good fun, and free pizza is at least 70 to 85 percent more delicious than conventionally acquired pizza.
But not all promotional giveaways are created equal, and some have a seedier side. Pittsburgh’s famous “White Out” shirts given to every fan at Consol Energy Center? Subtle racial messaging. The rubber rats Florida Panthers fans throw onto the ice after victories? A shrewdly planted diversion to conceal the actual rat diaspora overtaking the lower levels of the arena.
And then there are the flashing bracelets. Nothing says pre-game intimidation like turning the concourse into a One Direction concert live from Ibiza, and this new trend was more sinister than stupid. Until the Capitals-Flyers Game 3 in Philadelphia on April 18.
Philly fans, understandably peeved and assuredly drunk, responded to the Flyers’ 6-1 trouncing by hurling the heavy plastic jewelry onto the ice, causing the arena PA announcer to literally plead with them to “have some class,” which is like the damned pleading for ice baths in hell. The bracelets kept coming, and the Flyers were assessed a delay-of-game penalty on behalf of their fans. “Way to go,” lamented the PA announcer, and the righteous slept the sleep of the just.
None of this is to say that the best spectacle of all isn’t the hockey itself. After all, it’s the only sport that combines the hardest parts of other sports and then tells logic and sobriety to piss off by doing them all on ice skates. But like a good 401(k), or appreciating an Aaron Sorkin drama, the key is to be properly invested. And with this guide, now you know what to watch, whom to loathe, and most importantly, what to care about. So get out there and enjoy the best time of the year, sports fans!
Jason Rogers is a hockey writer and TV star. You should follow him Twitter.