WASHINGTON — Two games in, I’m calling it: this Stanley Cup final will not be a dud.
That was the fear when the playoffs began, wasn’t it? That we would have run out of steam by now. That you would have tuned out by now.
That the divisional playoff format, which pitted Boston against Toronto — the second and third best teams in the East — in the first round and then pitted Winnipeg and Nashville — the two best teams in the West — in the second round, would somehow make the final somewhere anticlimactic.
Instead, 8 million viewers watched some part of Game 1 between Vegas and Washington in Canada, which represented a 4 per cent increase from last year’s Game 1 between Pittsburgh and Nashville. The response was even more impressive in the U.S., where Game 1 drew a 3.72 rating (an average audience of about about 4.5 million viewers) — up 7 per cent from a year ago — and 3.788 million watched Game 2, which was up 16 per cent from last year and 47 per cent from 2016 when Pittsburgh played San Jose.
Part of that was obviously because of the curiosity of seeing Vegas — and not Winnipeg — in the final. But regardless of what caused you in to watch Vegas win 6-4 in Game 1, before losing 3-2 to Washington in Game 2, chances are you weren’t disappointed.
How could you be? The playoffs are often about conservative approaches and tight-checking hockey. It’s board battles and working all game for a chance, which usually is the result of a deflected puck or a mad scramble in front of the net.
It’s ugly. Often, it’s boring.
That hasn’t been the case here. This series has been nasty. And it’s been exciting. There were 10 goals scored in Game 1 and another five in Game 2. None went in off anyone’s rear end.
On the first goal of Game 2, Vegas’ James Neal batted a puck out of the air with his stick and then rifled a wrist shot into the top corner. Washington then answered back with a Globetrotter-esque tic-tac-toe passing play between Andre Burakovsky, Michal Kempny and Lars Eller.
Even the saves have been spectacular.
On one end, Vegas netminder Marc-Andre Fleury has been channelling his inner Dominik Hasek with a barrel-roll stop on T.J. Oshie in Game 2. In the same game, Capitals goalie Braden Holtby made what was likely the save of the playoffs — and according to teammate Jay Beagle, “the save of his lifetime” — when he dove across the crease with his stick to rob Alex Tuch of a sure-fire goal in the final two minutes of the third period.
There’s been bone-crunching hits and spilled blood, game-winning goals from unlikely heroes and so many lead changes and momentum swings that you’d be a fool to switch channels even a second before the final buzzer.
The defensive gaffes and back-and-forth chances might not be the kind of hockey that coaches particularly like. But that’s probably a good thing. In a city that calls itself the entertainment capital of the world, the first two games in Vegas were fun, fast and filled with more surprises than the final reveal of a Penn and Teller illusion.
And really, that’s all we can ask for.
This is thrilling playoff hockey — finally. A year ago, the Penguins and Predators went through the motions in a championship series that was lacking in goals and completely devoid of passion. It was so dull that Nashville’s P.K. Subban was forced to manufacture a beef with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby over bad breath.
Sure, this series began with some over-the-top theatrics courtesy of a pre-game show that was a blend of Medieval Times and Game of Thrones, as well as player introductions performed by Michael “Let’s get ready to rumble” Buffer. But the violence has been real, with Brooks Orpik unable to speak to reporters after scoring the Game 2 winner because of a crosscheck he received to the mouth late in the third period.
“I think it’s playoff hockey, and it definitely ramps up a little bit the physical play,” Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant said. “Guys are used to getting bumped and banged. It’s part of playoff hockey, and you fight through that stuff. I think every team is aware of what’s going to happen.”
In Game 1, the Capitals’ Tom Wilson took a healthy run at Jonathan Marchessault and blind-sided the Golden Knights’ playoff leading scorer with a late hit. Two nights later, Vegas retaliated not by going after Wilson, but rather Washington’s leading scorer.
The hit that Evgeny Kuznetsov received from Brayden McNabb might have looked clean, but it knocked Kuznetsov from the game clutching his arm. No one wants to see the best players injured, but at the same time it helped to inject life into a series.
We didn’t see this type of passion in the Boston-Toronto series or even with bitter rivals Pittsburgh and Washington. But we’re seeing it here, with two teams that had no prior playoff history heading into this series.
Game 3 is on Saturday.
Here’s hoping it goes the distance.
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @Michael_Traikos