So, by my count -- keeping in mind my shameless lifelong fan bigamy -- I've followed about 33 NHL playoff runs with enough of an emotional investment to feel absolutely miserable once they've ended (give or take a Europe trip or two, when like a draft-averse VP "I had other priorities").
I've lived and died with sweeps from both ends (haha Belfour), seven-game thrillers and seven-game soul-crushers, and every result in between.
It's what keeps the playoffs so compelling even when my team's done: No matter the situation, I can identify: "Oooh man, I've been there." [Ed.: Excepting Red Wings and Rags; for those, I necessarily have all the empathy of a robot.]
So stepping back, the most interesting scenario of these is when a clear-cut favorite is down 0-2 in Round 1 after dropping the first two games at home. That is the series status when long-held expectations most conflict with reality and fear. We've had two of those in this first round, and the respective fan reaction has run the gamut from firm hope to experienced resignation to fearful desperation.
Which is funny, from the outside. Two games is a blip. For any elite team worthy of the adjective, winning four of five is nothing. You've been putting runs like that together all year. Entering the post-season as a front-runner, you surely thought winning a first round series in five games was entirely possible.
While San Jose and Washington each exposed their fans' deepest, darkest fears in dropping the first two games, if any teams should be capable of turning the tables, it's them. Particularly considering the margin and the manner in which the Capitals and Sharks lost their first two games: Sub-par efforts against red-hot goalies backing inconsistent teams that are playing better than they've played all season. Hand-wringing of the last 48 hours aside, would anyone be surprised if the Capitals or Sharks suddenly reeled off three or four wins?
I mean, a week ago they were each Stanley Cup contenders, right? Need we dig out -- again -- the story of the 2006 Cup champ Hurricanes who lost their first two at home to Montreal? This stuff happens. If you're team is as good as you've thought it was all season, you have to believe they have it in them. And yet ... and yet. The agonizing anticipation.
That's what's so crazy about the 0-2 home-team deficit: It's so small yet feels so big. The intervening 48 hours are absolute misery. Win, and it's as if you split at home and blew your first chance to "reclaim" home ice in Game 3 -- stressful, but totally surmountable. This machine still hums. Lose, however, and the season is effectively over. All the worst fears come crashing to the frontal lobe -- and you even have to suffer the indignity of a "dead man walking" Game 4.
Tonight's Game 3 at Madison Square Garden was a fair reflection of how you'd expect the Capitals to respond -- as predictable as a Sean Avery brain fart, you might say. The Caps could still lose a close Game 4, of course, and be right back up one crappy creek. But Game 3 was where they absolutely had to come out on fire, and sure enough, the game was never in doubt from the get-go.
Hopefully nervous Sharks fans saw that and took some solace in it. I personally hope their team responds in kind. For entertainment purposes, I need a long Battle of California series.