Alec Martinez had been there before. The left point, that is. Who can forget the shot made from there by Martinez, then playing for the Kings, in overtime of Game 7 in the 2014 Western Conference finals? It deflected off Blackhawks defenseman Nick Leddy, floated ever so cruelly past goalie Corey Crawford’s right ear and left a little hole in Chicago’s heart.
Thursday night in Montreal, Martinez, now with the Golden Knights, was back at the left point, again in overtime, again with a passage to the Stanley Cup finals palpably in the balance. This time, though, his snipe bounced off Canadiens goalie Carey Price like a tennis ball off a wall and led to a mad rush the other way. Phillip Danault found Artturi Lehkonen, who pounded the puck past former Hawk Robin Lehner for a 3-2 win — the stunning climax to a six-game series upset that had 2021 written all over it.
What is it about this year that keeps making unimaginable outcomes in sports so wonderfully commonplace?
We can all agree that 2020 was one of the worst years in sports, but is anybody else starting to believe 2021 is one of the best? Fans are returning to most venues. Many teams are being unburdened of COVID-19-related restrictions. And as for the action itself? Taken all together, it’s a fantastical yarn.
We got a hint of what was to come when 43-year-old Tom Brady led the Buccaneers — the No. 5 seeds in the NFC — on a postseason run that was like something from the Brothers Grimm. Not only did the Bucs vanquish Drew Brees’ Saints, Aaron Rodgers’ Packers and Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs all in a row, but they did it in each case as underdogs and with a quarterback who ended his first year in Tampa as the oldest player to play in a Super Bowl.
“This team never stopped fighting, never stopped believing,” Brady said, “and we found a way when it mattered most.”
Phil Mickelson captured that spirit in May when, at 50, he won the PGA Championship to become the oldest major champion on record. This followed Hideki Matsuyama’s stirring triumph in April at the Masters, where he became the first Japanese male golfer to win a major and the first Asian-born player to don the green jacket. And it preceded Jon Rahm’s ferocious final round in this month’s U.S. Open, the title claimed by a Spaniard for the first time.
In women’s golf, the first two majors of the year went to players — Patty Tavatanakit and Yuka Saso — who’d never won one before. And no one within five strokes of the lead heading into Saturday’s third round of the Women’s PGA Championship has, either.
As for the Canadiens, winning the Stanley Cup wouldn’t be anything they haven’t done 24 times before. But they haven’t done it since 1993. If you can believe it, no Canadian team has hoisted the Cup in all that time.
And this Montreal team was the biggest longshot of the postseason, owner of the worst record of any team in the playoff field. Heading in, the Canadiens were +3500 on the money line to win it all. They survived three elimination games to get through the opening round against Toronto. They even have an interim coach behind the bench in Luke Richardson.
“They deserve this,” Richardson said of his players. “And they’re not done yet. They still have fire in their eyes.”
Speaking of fire, not to mention 1993, who’s hotter than the Suns? They’re two wins from reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since a John Paxson three-pointer shattered their dreams 28 years ago. Trailing 2-1 in the Western Conference finals are the Clippers, who’ve never gotten this far before, let alone taken the next step to play for a championship.
But why are we talking about those teams when we could be talking about Trae Young and the out-of-nowhere Hawks? They’re trying to get to the Finals for the first time since 1961 — when the franchise was still located in St. Louis — and are knotted 1-1 with the Bucks, whose title drought is a mere 10 years shorter.
When was the last time the NBA playoffs were so … different? The answer is basically never because certain players and teams have always been stuck on repeat. You have to flip back through LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and by the time you do you’re exhausted from the recollecting. Maybe 2011, when Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks won it all, offered this kind of a different feel? Maybe not quite.
“Everybody is happy we made it to the Eastern Conference finals, but we’re not satisfied,” Young said. “It’s great that we’re here, but we still got some games left.”
We’re counting on it. And we still have half the year to go. You don’t need us to tell you that in 2021 in sports, anything might happen.
Yes, Cubs and White Sox, that was a hint.