Saturday’s Playoff action was highlighted by three more overtime thrillers, bringing the number of games offering fans “free hockey” to seven in the first four days of this post season. Playoff hockey’s extra frame (or frames when we are fortunate to be witness to those going multiple extra periods) is as exciting an experience as there is in pro sports. Games can end and series momentum can shift in an instant, and you never know who is going to step up and make the play that could mean the difference between another day at the rink or a tee time at the course.
If you have ever been around a hockey locker room heading in to an overtime or even on the bench during a crucial time late in a tied game, you have probably heard a teammate utter the phrase, “Who’s gonna be the hero?” It is a rhetorical question often shouted out by a club’s vocal leader or a fourth liner who is doing their best to support and contribute long after their minutes have been drastically cut down. Essentially, they are asking who is going to make that clutch play that leads to the goal that will give the team the much desired victory and make the athlete a legend in the minds of teammates, historians, and fans, for what may be a night or could last a lifetime.
The most exciting thing about playoff overtime hockey and waiting to see who the hero is going to be? You just never know.
Some of the games greatest players made a habit out of delivering in extra time when games and seasons were on the line. Joe Sakic is the NHL’s career leader in Playoff OT goals with eight. Maurice Richard turned the trick six times himself. Blackhawks fans will never forget when their young star Patrick Kane scored the game winner in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010 bringing Chicago their first NHL title since 1961. Islanders fan favorite and Sportsideo team member Bobby Nystrom will be best remembered for burying the John Tonelli pass in the 1980 Finals against the Flyers to kick off a dynasty and give New York their first of four straight Stanley Cups.
But for every hockey legend who helps define his career by scoring one of these rare and special goals, there always seems to be a guy who prior to that moment may have received little notoriety outside of his home team’s city, or perhaps even just his home. Over the years, plenty of players either not known for their offensive attributes or occasionally not known at all have played the role of the hero.
After scoring 120 regular season points in 1969-1970, it would have come as a surprise to no one when Bobby Orr would bury the Game 4 winner against the Blues before flying through the air to secure the Bruins the Stanley Cup. However, if 26 years later you had Uwe Krupp, the 6’6 German defensive defenseman who had 69 career regular season goals and just 2 playoff goals in his 10 seasons prior to the 1996 Playoffs, completing the Avalanche’s sweep of the Panthers with a 64 footer in triple overtime, well then you are a better fan than I.
Overtime winners can come when and from those you may least expect. Through the early stages of the 2012 Playoffs, this has been no different. Voracek, Kelly, Havlat, Hanzal, Backstrom, Neil, and Bickell have all played the role of hero in recent days. They are an eclectic group to say the least, Europeans and North Americans, play makers and tough guys. The one thing they all have in common other then heroic performances during the first week of the 2012 Playoffs? None of them topped 20 goals in the regular season (Chris Kelly enjoyed his first 20 goal season -exactly 20- this year with the Bruins in a career in which he has almost exclusively been a highly effective role player, not a goal scorer).
In hockey, like in life, heroes can come from the places you never thought possible, and that is part of what makes this time of year so special. Here is to hoping for two more months of overtime filled playoff hockey, clutch performances from those we have come to expect them from, and a new generation of playoff heroes for the games next generation of fans.