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02-17-2007, 12:46 AM
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E.M. Swift on the NHL Playoffs:

Disenchanted NBA fans who have channel-surfed to ESPN may just have rediscovered hockey. The production of the telecasts, with innovations like the goal-cam inside the net, has been supurb, the games thrilling and competitive, and the results refreshingly unpredictable. Series after series featured magnificent goaltending, last-second scoring and overtime after overtime after overtime 18 games had gone into OT through last Saturday's Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, and a record tying six had gone into multiple overtimes.

The gritty Vancouver Canucks, down three games to one to the favored Calgary Flames in their opening round, won three straight in overtime to advance. The upstart San Jose Sharks, led by the scintillating goaltendingof Arturs Irbe, beat the potent Red Wings in Game 7 in Detroit. The New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers played an epic conference-championship series, with games 5, 6 and 7 building to a stunning finalein which the Devils, their goalie pulled, tied the deciding game with just 7.7 seconds left. The seemingly accursed Rangers finally prevailed in double OT.

Throughout, the play was fast and hard hitting but seldom tinged with the viciousness that had plagued the NHL in the past. There were the occasional high-sticking infractions that led to players being thrown out of games, as happened to Vancouver's Pavel Bure in Game 3 of the finals, but few acts of recognizable malice.

Of course, it didn't hurt the league that the Rangers, in their bid to break the Curse of 1940, became one of the top sports stories of the year. Or that New York's captain, Mark Messier, whose face looks like it was carved from the face of a mountain, did a decidedly unhockey-like thing by guaranteeing a win in Game 6 over the Devils and then backed up his boast, Joe Namath style, with a hat trick. Or that the Canicks were led by Bure, the aptly named Russian Rocket, who even while wearing a helmet and visor, has become a matinee idol.

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