Fans counted down the seconds to the final buzzer, “Brass Bonanza” played over the speakers at Hartford Civic Center and Whalers players Dave Tippett, Joel Quenneville and Dean Evason celebrated a three-game sweep of the Quebec Nordiques.
Wait, Hartford Whalers? Quebec Nordiques? Three-game sweep?
It was 1986 and one of the final NHL playoff series of its kind. The league this summer holds its first best-of-five playoff series in 34 years, and Tippett, Quenneville and Evason are among those involved in some capacity who know from personal experience what to expect.
“You have to be ready for the grind,” said Tippett, now coach of the Edmonton Oilers. “In a unique situation like this, you’re going from not playing to playing playoff-style hockey, so you’ve got to embrace the grind mentally, physically.”
This is a different kind of grind after four-plus months off the ice because of the coronavirus pandemic. The champion could need 19 wins — not the 15 from decades past — to lift the Stanley Cup. Sixteen teams will play eight best-of-five qualifying round series to determine who moves on to face the league’s best from a truncated regular season.
Tippett’s Oilers face the Chicago Blackhawks, whom Quenneville coached to three Cup titles from 2010-15. Quenneville’s Florida Panthers face the New York Islanders, whose associate coach, Lane Lambert, played in a five-gamer with Detroit in 1984. And Evason’s Minnesota Wild face the Vancouver Canucks, managed by Jim Benning, who went through one with Toronto in 1983.
These expanded playoffs have plenty of links to that past, which is plenty evident in Quenneville’s trademark white mustache.
“It’s going back just a couple years ago,” Quenneville quipped. “It’s going way back. Back in the day when we did have best of five, we played four in five nights and it was right off the bat. That was a heck of a grind. Game 4 it was like, ‘Wow.’ Sometimes your legs, you didn’t know if you had them underneath you.”
There will be more time off this year, with series spread out over eight or nine days and no travel because all games are played in one city. But each qualifying round series features one potential back-to-back, a rarity in modern playoffs.
“I think that (players have) got to be a little bit concerned about those knowing that the next day’s the next day,” Quenneville said.
Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet equated being down 1-0 on a best-of-five series to being down 2-0 in a best-of-seven.
“You can’t put all your eggs in one basket in Game 1, but there is some urgency and there’s urgency in that first shift to be ready to go,” Tocchet said.
Washington GM Brian MacLellan, whose Capitals get a bye in the East along with Boston, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, won and lost a few of those series back in the ‘80s.
He thinks that these playoffs will be wide open and unpredictable — in large part because of how it starts.
“In a short series,” Quenneville said, “anything can happen.”
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