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Lightning playoffs: An NHL postseason primer


Published:   |   Updated: April 16, 2014 at 04:25 PM

As the Tampa Bay Lightning get ready to open the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens, here is a look at some playoff traditions:

What are we fighting for?

The Stanley Cup not only is the oldest trophy competed for in North American sports, but it also is the most storied. It has been left by the side of a road, kicked into a canal and left overnight, and has twice been used as a baptismal font. But let’s go back to the beginning.

The silver bowl that sits atop what is now recognized as the Stanley Cup trophy was originally commissioned in 1892 as the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup by Lord Stanley of Preston, the Governor General of Canada, who sought to award it to the top-ranking amateur ice hockey club in the country.

The first Cup was awarded to the Montreal Hockey Club in 1893 and it continued to go to amateur teams until 1915, when the National Hockey Association and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association agreed to have their respective league champions vie for the Cup.

After a number of teams from the NHA and PCHA merged or folded, the National Hockey League was founded in 1917, and by 1926 the NHL was the only league left competing for the Cup. A few teams from rival leagues actually challenged for the Cup after 1926, but from that point on no other league had a team win the Cup and it became the NHL’s de facto title trophy in 1947.

The playoff beard

The 2013 World Series champion Boston Red Sox were known in part for wearing scraggly beards through their title run, but they didn’t start the tradition of the playoff beard. That tradition started in the NHL when the New York Islanders adopted the practice in the early 1980s.

According to Islanders Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin, the Isles were scheduled to play four games in five nights during a first-round series one year, and several of their players simply decided not to shave to avoid feeling the sting that comes when sweat hits those open pores.

The Islanders went on to win the Cup four times between 1980 and 1983, thus making it fashionable for all postseason participants to grow playoff beards. The tradition has, um, grown exponentially ever since, with fans now participating through the annual Beard-a-thon campaign that benefits NHL Charities.

Playing hurt

Much like the playoff beard, playing hurt during the Stanley Cup playoffs is also a tradition. One that, according to legend, started in 1900 with the Dawson City Nuggets.

The Nuggets were a team made of gold prospectors from the Yukon Territory and during their 23-day sojourn to Ottawa, which some players made by dog sled, several key contributors developed frostbite on their feet. No matter. The Nuggets refused to forfeit or even postpone the two-game series. Despite gaining a lot of support from Ottawa fans for their pluck, they dropped the first game by a score of 9-2 and the second by a score of 23-2.

Since then, the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs has consistently been marked by players who have ignored everything from broken bones to bleeding ulcers to keep playing for the prized Stanley Cup.

The format

The NHL realigned its 30 member clubs prior to the start of the 2013-14 season, and with that realignment came a slightly new Stanley Cup playoff format.

Eight teams from each of the two conferences still make the playoffs, but instead of determining first- and second-round matchups by finishing order in the conference, the league now matches teams based on where they finished in their respective divisions.

The two teams in each conference that emerge from the two divisional-round matchups will play for the right to represent their conference in the Stanley Cup finals, and all series in every round of the playoffs are a best-of-seven battle.

Oh, and there are no shootouts in the playoffs. The NHL uses the shootout to decide games that remain tied after a five-minute overtime period during the regular season, but not in the playoffs. The first team to score in overtime wins, even if it takes multiple 20-minute overtime periods to decide the winner.

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