NHL's underdogs are still howling as favorites go home with tails between legs


Imagine it's the NCAA basketball tournament and, as the Final Four looms just ahead, Penn, Manhattan, Rhode Island and Virginia are about to decide which is to represent the East Region in New Orleans.

That, in effect, is the situation as the hockey season heads into the homestretch. Good thing the Stanley Cup playoffs aren't a tennis tournament. The guy directing the show would have long since jumped off the nearest skyscraper.

If you're sufficiently confused with references to tennis, basketball and hockey in the first two paragraphs with baseball and football dead ahead, welcome to postseason analysis.

For about seven decades now, the NHL has fought the knock that its regular season is the equivalent of baseball's Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. Or those football games in August when several players on the same team are seen parading around wearing the same jersey numbers.

A sham, the people who dislike hockey scream, exhibition tours by member teams designed to create statistics and keep a lot of guys off the farms in Canada while throwing business to arenas, hotels and airlines.

Everybody makes the playoffs, they snicker, even the team that wins the collegiate championship if it isn't too busy visiting the Rose Garden.

Of course, the same thing could be said of most professional leagues, considering the ridiculous number of games teams play and the size of the playoff fields, especially the NBA. But hoops is an American game, remember, so we don't push it.

This is the 100th year of the Stanley Cup and the Wales Conference showdown began yesterday with the Montreal lTC Canadiens clubbing the New York Islanders, 4-1. For this one game, at least, a higher-seeded team lived up to its reputation.

The regular season saw the Habs finishing sixth in the overall standings while the Islanders could do no better than a three-way tie for 12th among two dozen teams. The Campbell Conference final, pitting the Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs, beginning tonight, involves the No. 8 and No. 11 seeds.

Come on, 6-8-11-12, what's going on here? Where are the good guys? Heck, if this were college hoops, North Carolina wouldn't have that championship banner hanging from the rafters at the Dean Dome and Chris Webber never would have gotten the chance to screw up by calling the timeout Michigan didn't have.

Is it a strength or a weakness, this collection of also-rans coming together in the Cup semifinals? To a majority of fans, it's great because we have a history of pulling hysterically for underdogs. However, it does help to fortify the long-held theory of regular-season play being strictly for statisticians.

In the first round of the Cup playoffs, the Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 seeds were sent packing. The top pair, division victors Boston and Chicago went so far as to get swept by Nos. 15 and 16 seeds, no less. When the two-time defending champion and top gun Pittsburgh Penguins got zapped by the Islanders last Friday, it was time to consider that Chicken Little was indeed telling the truth when she reported the sky is falling.

A total of seven teams entered the charmed circle of gathering up 100 points during the season and, with more than a month still remaining, only one of them is left: Montreal.

Who's writing this stuff, Stephen King? Buffalo lost its last seven games of the regular campaign, then won four straight from the Bruins, who finished with 18 victories in their last 21 games. The Canadiens lost their first two games to Quebec, were rotten at the end of the season and now have won nine straight. The Kings didn't get a point out of Wayne Gretzky and two other of their top scorers in the first four games, yet have cruised past Calgary and Vancouver, teams that dominated them from October to April.

It's definitely weird the way things have worked out so far. Although, when you're working on a tradition that started in 1893, chances are every eventuality is bound to happen sooner or later. For instance, it was just two years ago the Minnesota North Stars dragged a losing record (27-39-14) all the way to the final and they're unpacking their bags in Dallas as we speak. The four semifinalists all finished third in their respective divisions. Eerie.

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