Orr and Thorton throwin' down. via.
The NHL playoffs opened on Tuesday night with three games. Two games went into overtime, one of which was decided by a hilarious puck-handling gaffe, and the third was won on a really impressive goal scored by a widely beloved forty-two year old sniper. Basically I haven’t been so thrilled by a threesome since I downloaded my first ménage-a-trois porn clip as a young lad with Kazaa.
On Wednesday, playoff hockey will return for Toronto Maple Leafs fans, whose long eight-year nightmare dealing with bad golf jokes every Spring—I might mention that there is no such thing as a good golf joke—has finally come to an end. It’s only thanks to some truly obscene luck over the course of a shortened season that the Leafs have ended their playoff drought, but who cares, playoff hockey is playoff hockey.
The series between the Maple Leafs and the Bruins won’t even be remotely close, and as a bonus is sure to generate some twisted, fucked up narratives as it pits two of the most frequently misunderstood teams in the league against each other.
The Bruins, for their part, are a dominant five-on-five club who excel at two-way hockey. Boston’s NHL team has some big bodies and is tough to match up against physically, sure, but ever since they won a mucky Stanley Cup Final series against the Canucks—by out-thugging the cursed club from Vancouver—there has been a “big bad Bruins” narrative that’s totally infected with misled hockey punditry.
Here’s how it breaks down: toughness = wins, skill = you’re a European pansy.
What’s great about this misunderstanding is that the Bruins are a great team—because Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron are great players. And it helps that they consistently get stellar goaltending. The fighting, the punk test nonsense, and all that other bestial noise is just a sideshow that only the dumbest hockey fans and pundits see as meaningful in influencing outcomes.
The Bruins themselves proved that they don’t think they win games because of “toughness” when they scratched their gentlemanly face-puncher Shawn Thornton for game seven of their first round series against the Capitals a year ago. Then the Bruins lost that game seven, and idiots of course drew idiot conclusions (“they didn’t have enough grit!”).
What’s odd is that the Maple Leafs’ success this season is, in the opinion of some dummies, tied inextricably to their club’s toughness—which is mostly concentrated in the persons of Colton Orr and Frazier McLaren.
Orr and McLaren, unlike Chara and Lucic, are “pure enforcers” in that they’ve never been productive at actual hockey on any level. The average serious beer league team has a ringer who outscored Colton Orr at the major junior level. But if Toronto’s James Reimer steals a game or two, Phaneuf wins a matchup with basically no help, and Phil Kessel scores a timely beauty against the grain; or in other words if Toronto continues to enjoy all of the puck luck, then I’m pretty sure McLaren and Orr will get the lions share of the credit. The Leafs will have stood up to the Bruins thanks to a couple of guys who are liabilities on the ice, it won’t be because their best players exceeded expectations. I find this endlessly annoying.
Better teams defeat inferior teams a slim majority of times in hockey games, and if they don’t, it’s probably because of goaltending. McLaren and Orr aren’t reasons the Maple Leafs matchup well with the Bruins, they’re symptomatic of the larger issues facing the Maple Leafs in the grand scheme of things. Those issues are that Toronto’s team is still pretty much awful and very likely won’t be able to sustain the success they had this year so long as overmatched players continue to take up roster spots. Smart Leafs fans understand this, though you won’t hear much about it during their five game playoff run this month.
Instead we’ll see grit and “hits” fetishized, even by those pundits who cover excellent teams who are thought not to be tough enough because they don’t generate enough hits (partly because those clubs always have the puck).
Thanks to massive improvements in hockey knowledge, we know so much more about the game now than we did even five years ago. But just like when Don Cherry opined that female sports journalists shouldn’t be in male dressing rooms—because of all the penises dangling about (even though I’m quite sure the dongs aren’t flowing in the presence of male journalists either)—for some reason the tenor of hockey coverage sometimes seems stuck in the late 80s.
Follow the Angry Hockey Nerd on Twitter: @ThomasDrance
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