There was a celebratory vibe at Climate Pledge Arena on Thursday as fans smelled the end of the Kraken’s long, agonizing 12-month playoff drought. Rumor has it that Dave Hakstol even allowed himself the hint of a half-smile when the Kraken went up by three goals in the second period, though that could not be confirmed at press time.
But as great as the accomplishment that the Kraken officially achieved with their 4-2 win over the hapless Arizona Coyotes (who have less hap than almost any team in the NHL), it’s what lies ahead that should truly excite the hockey-loving populace.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are truly a singular event — some would say the most intense, exciting and agonizing postseason tournament in North American sports. In other words, an absolute blast, the sort of spectacle the Kraken’s Founding Fathers and Mothers no doubt envisioned to buoy them in their darkest days during the laborious fight to land a team and build an arena.
That it took just two seasons to arrive is remarkable, even with the recent example of their expansion predecessor, the Vegas Golden Knights, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season. That always seemed an unreasonable comparison, a point driven home when the Kraken posted a 27-49-6 record in their inaugural season, 30th out of 32 teams in the NHL.
There was grumbling that general manager Ron Francis was too timid in his team-building, but this season has been a vindication of his methods. To reach the playoffs in their second season is a testament to his vision; when juxtaposed against the 21 years between playoff berths for the Mariners, a one-year drought is an acceptable amount of suffering for Kraken fans.
And now come the spoils — the potential for eight weeks of incredible tension and indelible memories. If you want to be a stickler for accuracy, it’s been a 103-year drought. But there aren’t any known surviving viewers of the playoff dynasty of the Seattle Metropolitans, who won the Stanley Cup in 1917, tied for the Cup in 1919 (when a pandemic forced its cancelation in midstream; good thing we never had to worry about that again); and lost in five games in 1920.
Truly, every playoff series is one to be savored, because you never know when it will happen again. Even the Seahawks, once a perennial top-tier NFL team, have had just two home playoff games since 2014. And hockey players will tell you that the Stanley Cup playoffs are the ultimate.
“It took me six years to finally get there, and once you get there, the game just elevates everyone; it ups their focus,’’ said Jordan Eberle. “And it’s just intense. I mean, every mistake, it seems like, ends up in the back of your net and vice versa. It’s why you play this game, to get to that point. And I think for this group, it’s good. Not only do I think that we’re going to gain experience from that, but I think the way that we play, hopefully we can some surprise some teams.”
What is it that makes the Stanley Cup so compelling? Let us count the ways. Certainly, the unpredictability is a big part of it. It’s the most egalitarian of postseason professional tournaments, with low seeds upsetting higher seeds with far more regularity than you see in other sports.
“You look at the Stanley Cup playoffs — that’s why it’s the funnest to play in,’’ said Eberle “I mean, everyone has a chance. This (getting in) is only half the battle. Now the real work begins.”
The sheer endurance required to last through a potential maximum of four seven-game series is mesmerizing — especially with the specter of 20-minute, sudden-death overtime periods that go until there’s a winner. And the sheer effort that players put in, disregarding all manner of injury and fatigue to persevere, is legendary. As Steve Rushin of Sports Illustrated once wrote about the toll the playoffs take even on (or especially on) the winners:
“The NHL playoffs are one long pressurized Ponzi scheme: The sooner you get out the more likely you’ll be made whole again. After all, with no guaranteed payout, the teams that advance are doubling down on their potential misery. It’s why the victors often look haunted and spent — and resigned to another week with the voluminous playoff beards that cause male viewers to scratch their necks in sympathetic itchiness.”
Of course, fans will have their own psychic investment in the proceedings, living and dying with each goal made or allowed. Al Michaels, who is on record as believing in hockey miracles, once commented to commissioner Gary Bettman that the NHL playoffs are the only event that leaves fans more exhausted than the players.
And speaking of playoff beards (going back two paragraphs), the rituals and traditions are certainly part of what makes the Stanley Cup playoffs so endearing. Few events in sports tug on the heartstrings like the handshake line after a hard-fought series — which describes all of them, come to think of it. And the reverence with which the winners regard the Stanley Cup itself — a true holy object — is unmatched.
When the clock ran down to zero on Thursday and the playoff berth was officially secured, Hakstol slapped the back of Jared McCann on the bench and clasped hands with his coaching staff before striding down the tunnel. It is perhaps a reflection of the gravity and magnitude of the Stanley Cup playoffs that there is no wild Champagne celebration merely for getting there, like you see in baseball. The Kraken’s dressing room scene was sedate and understated.
Asked to characterize what lies ahead for Kraken fans, Hakstol shrugged and said, “I can’t describe it. It’s a whole different level, and I know this: Our fans tonight were unbelievable once again. Right from the drop of the puck, you could feel that excitement and you could feel some of the intensity as the game went on.
“But they’ll know it when they walk in the building for that first game. They’ll feel it when the puck drops. And then everybody will know what it feels like.”
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