Where did six weeks go?
I remember flying into San Jose on April 15 for the start of my annual playoff trek like it was yesterday.
I spent exactly 32 days among San Jose, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver and Anaheim over the first two rounds. Then, between the second round and the conference finals, I spent three days at home to reintroduce myself to my three young kids. And then right back on the road, to New York and Montreal for the final four games of the wacky Eastern Conference finals.
That's 41 of 44 days working on the road, seeing the highs and lows of what once again has been a story-filled Stanley Cup playoffs.
Here are my top five memories from the moments I covered:
1. April 30, Game 7, Los Angeles Kings at San Jose Sharks. Outscored 17-8 in losing the opening three games of the series, the Los Angeles Kings stunningly turned the tables on the Sharks by outscoring them 19-5 over the final four games and becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to erase the almighty 3-donut hole. "We just have a lot of heart on this team," Kings stud blueliner Drew Doughty said that night. "We have guys who are so competitive, guys who want to win. That's how [GM] Dean [Lombardi] built this team -- with guys who will do anything to win. I think that showed. We never gave up and came back hard.'' I'll never forget walking into the home dressing room and seeing the look of soul-crushing hurt on the faces of those San Jose Sharks players. I asked longtime Sharks star Patrick Marleau how this kind of collapse would affect a team with an existing reputation of playoff underachieving. "You don't usually agree with it, but then you do something like this, and it's not easy to take, you know?" Marleau said in a moment of brutal honesty. "There have been a lot of low points, but yeah, this is definitely one of them.'' I left San Jose the next morning, Anaheim-bound for Round 2 and very much wondering what this Sharks team would look like when I returned next season.
2. April 25, Denver, Patrick Roy takes center stage. Having lost two straight in Minnesota, the Colorado Avalanche head coach and former goalie legend turned in one of the great off-day media performances, ranting colorfully about all kinds of things as he tried to turn the spotlight onto himself and off his young team. "There's a process," Roy said. "I think the road trip was good for us in some ways. Hey, we're not happy. But I think it's a little rude to say, 'Are we going to show up?' Because we've been showing up all year, and I think we deserve respect for what we've been doing. ... I'm proud of my team. I'm extremely proud. And I'm not going to throw them under the bus. Because I'm their partner. I've been with them all along, and I trust our team." There were other highlights too, such as a history lesson on the 1993 Quebec Nordiques, who lost to the Montreal Canadiens that season despite all that young talent but learned to become Cup champion in 1996 in Denver. Certainly the kicker, ahem, was Roy saying before Game 5 that he wanted his players to "put their [guts] on the table." Don't change, Patrick.
3. May 10, Game 4, Anaheim Ducks at Los Angeles Kings. Down 2-1 in the series and having lost goalie Frederik Andersen to injury, Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau stunned the hockey world by starting 20-year-old phenom John Gibson over veteran Jonas Hiller. It was gutsy, to say the least. But Gibson, called up from the AHL playoffs just two days prior, rewarded Boudreau with a veteran-like performance. At 20 years, 330 days old, he became the youngest goalie in NHL history to record a shutout in his playoff debut and the youngest to win a playoff game since Habs star Carey Price in 2008. "He's got a little swagger to him," Ducks teammate Andrew Cogliano said. "He's going to be good." The series didn't end well for Gibson, with a Game 7 hook, but that's not going to change the bright future of this franchise goalie in the making, and his playoff entry won't soon be forgotten.
4. May 16, Game 7, Los Angeles Kings at Anaheim Ducks. It was over barely after it started. The playoff-savvy Kings came out and played the part, showing what it takes in a Game 7 and teaching their crosstown rivals, the Anaheim kids trying to supplant them in the West, a tough lesson. The final was 6-2, a crush job by a Kings team that had erased a 3-2 series deficit one round after erasing a 3-0 series deficit. "I look around and trust that everybody's going to do his job," said Kings veteran winger Justin Williams, who scored that night because, well, it was Game 7. "Nobody has to be great, but everybody has to be good. And we were all good tonight." What I'll remember just as much -- if not more -- from this night is how the Kings paid tribute after the game to Ducks legend Teemu Selanne, who had played the final game of his illustrious, 21-year NHL career. The Kings had plenty to say to him in the handshake line and gave him the stick tap as the crowd at Honda Center said goodbye to Selanne. "There are not many guys left in this league who have earned the respect and admiration of not only the fans but also the players they played against," Williams said. "We would have stood out there for 20 minutes if we could. If that is his last game ... he has nothing to be upset about. He was an awesome player." We'll miss you, Teemu.
5. May 29, Game 6, Montreal Canadiens at New York Rangers. Thomas Vanek thought he had a sure goal, but somehow Henrik Lundqvist pulled off a Dominik Hasek-like, flying windmill blocker save that just took my breath away. It was the signature moment on a night King Henrik only had to make 18 saves overall but sent a message: You're not getting one on me tonight. "I've never been more determined to win a hockey game than tonight," Lundqvist said afterward. He had been pulled in Game 5 in Montreal and was indeed determined to make amends. I remember watching that morning as he put his equipment away in his stall, and his piercing eyes could've blasted a hole through a wall, there was so much focus there. I just knew right then what was in store for Montreal that night. People on the outside see the big saves and the stylish, model-like appearance that makes women melt, but Lundqvist is one of the most competitive NHLers I've ever been around. I couldn't help but be happy that he had booked a ticket to his first Cup finals.
More memories are sure to abound in the Stanley Cup finals. I cannot wait.