The Sweet Sixteen ended with a sweet-talking performance by Claude Giroux, yet another criminal act by a disgruntled Phil Kessel, and photographers snapping seven-hours worth of pictures for Patrick Kane and his lovely female fanatics.
Sixty-four teams down to eight, and the madness is just beginning …
GORDIE HOWE BRACKET
No. 1 Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh vs. No. 10 Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit
Breakdown: Detroit-Pittsburgh battles will surely entail bad blood and hostility. It’s bad enough they competed across back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals. But to make matters worse, the Wings and Penguins each hoisted the Silver Chalice on the enemy’s rink. That’s like someone walking into your house and slapping your mother in the face. It’s unforgivable. The ill will lasts forever.
So you can only imagine the background scene as Zetterberg and Malkin take the ice: Rowdy, rambunctious, the most hotly intense crowd in All-Puck tournament history.
Not helping the situation was this: Prior to the tournament, we jam-packed the ticket allotment to one side of the ice. We thought it would provide the best view (remember: The game of “posts” is played inside the blue line). However, we failed to look at the bracket and project a possible Wings-Penguins nightmare. So now we’re screwed.
That’s one problem. Here’s another: We didn’t order extra police squads. The blame falls squarely on the shoulders of our tournament director, who must have lost a few brain cells from that Milan Lucic beating.
Anyway, the first period begins as the decibel levels heighten, the stands rattle and the cameras shake.
Zetterberg slips past Malkin … but misses the net.
Malkin slips past Zetterberg … and rings a shot off the post for a 1-0 lead.
The chants of “Let’s go Penguins” and “Let’s Go Red Wings” mesh into “Let’s Go PrendWugs.” And that’s when enemy fans trade dirty looks, then insults, then punches.
Soon enough, a full section begins to brawl like a European soccer game – only worse. In fact, it’s so severe, that both Zetterberg and Malkin stop skating and watch the fisticuffs as the final 3:07 runs off the first period clock.
We thought intermission would help – yet it didn’t. The brawl continues during the break and stretches into the second period. It worsens as Zetterberg and Malkin ignore the second period’s opening puck toss, then watch the fights carry from one section, to another section, to another section.
You think that’s bad? You’ll never believe what happened next.
Here came Phil Kessel, who sneaks into the stadium in the perfect disguise: A No. 37 Boston Bruins jersey that he stole from Patrice Bergeron’s bag.
Kessel poses that no-good-sly expression as he unzips a bag and places the Conn Smythe Trophy between the benches.
The Conn Smythe Trophy? (Gasp!) Do you realize what this does? The building is about to implode, riot-gear-police are nowhere to be found … and Kessel does this? Now?
Think about it: Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe in 2008. Malkin won it in 2009. And Kessel places the actual trophy between the benches?
That’s an act of evil intentions.
Zetterberg and Malkin, who are usually a couple of calm, humble and consummate professionals, get a look in their eye and stare at each other as the chaos unfolds in the stands. They drop the gloves. The arena goes crazy. They begin to fight. The whole scene deserves that creepy music from Shutter Island, and the crowd turns into a one-man-for-himself riot.
People begin to run for their lives.
Zetterberg and Malkin look upward at Vincent Lecavalier, really wondering if he would give the “thumbs-down signal” for death, but he bolted and evacuated the building.
And so did the tournament director, who bailed the scene as the scoreboard read 1-0 Malkin.
And through it all, amazingly, was this: Kessel walks out of the arena like Keyser Soze leaving the police station in The Usual Suspects. It’s an innocent stroll into public, as he pulls off the No. 37 Bergeron jersey in favor of a Red Wings sweater, that way fans cannot provide identification.
Kessel hops into a car, driven by Lucic, and they drive off into the sunset without a trace.
WAYNE GRETZKY BRACKET
No. 12 Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit vs. No. 2 Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey
Breakdown: The sounds of pucks hitting posts in pre-game warm-ups echo across the empty arena. After the Zetterberg-Malkin fiasco six hours earlier, we had no choice but to play this game without fans. Plus, all local police are on a massive manhunt for Phil Kessel, although trying to find him is a needle-in-a-haystack search.
Speaking of Kessel, he really did a number on Lidstrom’s psyche. The eardrums of the seven-time Norris Trophy winner absorbed constant bickering last round when Toronto coach Ron Wilson screamed at his star player. Lidstrom hasn’t slept soundly the past two days because his mind is like a seashell with the argumentative sounds lingering. He constantly hears the cries of “play defense, Phil!” and “shut-up, coach!” and “you’re useless, Phil!” and “screw you, coach!”
That can take its toll.
And it does in the opening period, as Kovalchuk jumps ahead 1-0.
It stays that way through a scoreless second period, appearing like the pixie dust would run out on the 12th-seeded Lidstrom’s magical run. And remember: He’s 41 years old, which is roughly 89 in hockey years. Maybe this match-up against the 28-year-old Kovalchuk is the end of a great career. Maybe the final grains of sand will sift through Lidstrom’s fatherly time capsule.
But hope is restored as the third period begins: Dan Cleary takes the bench, octopus in his grasp. Remember, Cleary threw several slimy creatures during Lidstrom’s second-round victory against Michael Ryder. The tentacles interfered with Ryder’s skating, thus leading to Lidstrom goals and victory.
So maybe Lidstrom’s eight-tentacle friend will help again.
Or maybe not, because Kovalchuk ain’t no dummy, and he avoids Cleary’s range and the Detroit bench with each check-up to the blue line during the third period. Kovalchuk holds Lidstrom to three shots through 29 minutes. The game appears lost as Cleary pulls at his beard in anxiety, feeling helpless for his legendary teammate.
But here comes Lidstrom in the final minute, trying to defy logic and reason. He fakes right, shifts left …. but falls to the ice as the precious seconds begin to tick away.
30 seconds, 29 seconds …
Lidstrom’s fate looks ugly as he rises off his back, props to one knee and flicks a desperation shot.
28 seconds, 27 seconds …
But, wait: The puck takes an odd ricochet off Kovalchuk’s shaft.
26 seconds …
It launches into the air.
25 seconds …
It flutters like a dying bird.
24 seconds …
It descends toward the post.
23 seconds …
Kovalchuk drops to both knees in shock. Just like that, with a magic flick of the wrist that’s straight out of a science-fiction thriller, the game is tied 1-1 with 23 seconds remaining.
“Are you human?” Kovalchuk asks in wide-eyed astonishment.
Lidstrom, with a stoic look, just glares without a word.
On the ensuing possession, Lidstrom steals the puck from Kovalchuk, cycles to check up at the blue line, then circles in patience, waiting and waiting to strike. He fakes right, shifts left, winds up and uncorks a shot that drills the post with 7.2 seconds remaining.
Cleary explodes and heaves the octopus in celebration.
Kovalchuk falls on his backside and looks heavenward.
Lidstrom, meanwhile, just peers through his half-shield, looks at the 2-1 result and nods in approval.
The funny thing is, Lidstrom’s shot didn’t create an echo. Even more bizarre is this: That is Lidstrom’s third game winner of this tournament with precisely 7.2 seconds left on a stadium clock.
“I couldn’t have played any better,” Kovalchuk says afterward in shocking disbelief. “Three shots through 29 minutes? Did you see that fluttering-bird shot? Did you see his energy in the final minute? It doesn’t make sense.
“Heck, I even asked him if he’s human.
“He’s like a Bionic Man or something.”