Lord Stanley's Cup time

It is Stanley Cup time, ever among the sporting calendar's joyful interludes, and you're excused if you find the sensation a bit bizarre this year.

Normally at this point in the season we'd be bouncing off the holidays and looking forward to the all-star game. It would be roughly mid-season.

Can you imagine an MLB baseball season that begins near the first of July being deemed valid, or an acceptable NFL football campaign embarking right around Halloween? Such silliness would be comparable to what our beloved if occasionally brain-dead NHL hockey barons have foisted on us with their absurd off-ice slugfest called "the Lock-out" which you'll recall raged mindlessly over the first four months of what should have been the hockey season.

That they got away with it is entirely a tribute to you, my fellow suckers.

Clearly, if you love this game you'll put up with no end to insult, condescension, and sheer nonsense. It's a painful fact that Jeremy Jacobs and his 29 playmates on the National Hockey League's Board of Governors have once again cleverly proven well beyond dispute for the third time in 18 years with -- admittedly -- considerable help from the not much swifter grunts who do their bidding, night after night, on the ice.

They should understand, however, that if we do forgive we don't forget.

And it's not entirely clear they get that. On the eve of the playoffs, Commissioner Gary Bettman, resident pawn of the owners and ringmaster of the labor fiasco, addressed an Associated Press sports editors' event and absolutely raved about how brilliantly his league has recovered from its ridiculous flirtation with ruin.

The league's buildings, Bettman boasted, played to 97.4 percent of capacity while "some" teams, he said, are reporting TV ratings-gains of "double and triple digits" for a season savagely truncated. He was careful to praise the fans saying no game has followers more (in his words) "avid and passionate" than hockey. Then he added, "They are emotional, but most of all they are well-informed. Overwhelmingly, our fans understand what we needed to do and what we have done."

It sure sounds at least to this ever skeptical observer like the wily lawyer-commissioner is boasting that the remarkable loyalty of the NHL's long suffering patrons is essentially an endorsement of him and his owners and their nasty tactics. If that's what Bettman and his buddies actually believe you can safely conclude they've learned nothing from this latest abomination, assuring it's only a matter of time before they blunder yet again.

Still, it's amazing that out of this mess a decent regular season evolved. It's an extraordinary tribute to the players. Unless you've played this game -- if only on long, cold, winter days on windswept reservoirs -- you can't begin to appreciate how hard it is to play, let alone full tilt and beautifully.

At the NHL level it is -- night after night -- an exhausting experience, even for this league's world-class athletes, arguably the best conditioned in all of sport. In 96 days they played 48 games which precisely equals a game every other night for some three months and that's simply unbelievable.

Now the survivors advancing to the playoffs are asked to jack it another leap in intensity to Stanley Cup levels. How much can they have left in their tanks? Injuries have been a factor, although not as great as expected. Will they now become more so? It's likely. Does this year's Cup go to the team that best handles the trials of triage?

In the shortened season there were few surprises. Of the 16 teams qualifying for the post-season you could probably have picked 14 at the start.

Mildly surprising were the rise of the injury plagued Senators and plucky young Islanders, although even more so was Minnesota's failure to make it after major free-agent acquisitions. Few anticipated the Hawks would be as good as they were or the Rangers as bad. The Wings are lucky to have survived. The Leafs are back after a decade in oblivion. The Canadiens got the most out of the least. Out west many again are whispering, "Vancouver!" Anaheim is a dark horse. But the Penguins, buoyed by terrific late season deals and Sidney Crosby's dramatic return, are the experts' choice, usually the kiss of death. We'll see.

You, of course, care mainly -- maybe only -- about the Bruins. On that delicate matter my answer is short, sweet, and reluctant. Fuhgetaboutit!

Where and how it all went awry is better left for another day doubtlessly commanding much attention. At this precious moment what's merely astounding is how a team finishing with the fifth best record in the entire 30-team league that came within a weekend's meltdown of finishing third-best can be deemed dead on arrival at the playoffs. But so they are and deservedly so.

For sure, I well know; "the post-season is a new season." But with seven losses in their last nine games including back-to-back no-shows in a pair of gut-checks the last lost weekend and with only two frantic days to turn it around I think you can put that battered old "new season" bromide back in the bloody mothballs. Thank you very much!

The only faint sliver of optimism to be gleaned from this frightful prospect has dimly to do with the fact the Bruins now draw the aroused Toronto Maple Leafs, a team they've utterly owned to the point of derision the last 45 years, as their first-round foe.

On the other hand, all that history only gives the Leafs more incentive. Toronto hasn't won the Cup since 1967, nor even made the playoffs since 2004. Can you begin to consider how much that gnaws at the very soul of a town that profoundly believes it's Hockey's epicenter and has been obliged to suffer the eminence of the likes of Tampa, Anaheim, and Winston-Salem over the last half dozen years? I'd say at the very least the Bruins, at their most vulnerable, have a bloody tiger by the tail.

It's a sad turn of events. Early on they were high among the favorites, widely thought headed for the Final Four, at a minimum. Their subsequent fade the last six weeks has been relentless. One recalls a third period collapse in Pittsburgh early in March as the probable turning point with a last second flop against Montreal days later as the confirmation of real problems we didn't recognize because we didn't want to. Since then, they've been merely a border-line playoff team and, at the end, not even that.

It was when they lost to desperate and cellar-dwelling Buffalo the first game played with such deeply stirring fanfare after the Marathon tragedy that you knew they were in grave trouble. That notion was compounded when they again lost three days later to Pittsburgh. You well knew how much the Bruins being the Bruins wanted to win these games and it had nothing to do with the standings. It was a statement that they desperately wanted to make; one for the town and one for something so rare. At an agonizing moment, they yearned to be the Bruins of classical lore, but failed.

Thus the stunning fold the last weekend was just the final affirmation of the obvious and inescapable. These were true play-off and "gut-check" games to be decided by "grit"; that rare stuff in which the legend of the traditional Bruins is implacably rooted. But in both games it was the other guys -- first the Capitals then the Senators -- who had the ''true grit.'' It was sad.

The Celtics are on life supports and the Bruins are about to join them. But then it's been, save for the Red Sox, a rather lousy spring. But then baseball doesn't really count. Not in April!

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