Quite often, pro hockey's first-round playoff games are met with a collective yawn. Things generally don't get too serious, or exciting, until a little later on. That hasn't been the case this year, though, as Suspense and Drama have skated a shift in most every opening series.
Perhaps the most interesting case in point involved the defending Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders, who needed a two-goal comeback late in regulation plus an overtime goal by John Tonelli to beat Pittsburgh in the decisive fifth game. The Islanders crushed Pittsburgh 8-1 and 7-2 to open the series, then saw the Penguins suddenly come to life after owner Eddie DeBartolo (who also owns football's San Francisco 49ers) offered ticket holders refunds to Game 3. Few took him up on the offer, Coach Ed Johnston boldly stuck with shellshocked goalie Michel Dion, and the Penguins came away with a 2-1 victory. They followed that with a 5-2 triumph, and, holding a 3-1 lead with six minutes left in Game 5, appeared on the verge of a tremendous playoff upset. But the Islanders played like true champions thereafter, tying the game, and winning 4-3 on a goal 6:19 into sudden death.
That the Islanders were the only division winner to advance has the National Hockey League abuzz. Chicago dispatched Minnesota, a Stanley Cup finalist last year, in four games. Montreal was shockingly eliminated by Quebec, which won the series finale in overtime at the Montreal Forum to send the Canadiens packing early for a second straight year. And Los Angeles, the weakest playoff qualifier in terms of won-lost record, upset Edmonton and its high-scoring superstar Wayne Gretzky. This series also went the distance and saw the heavily favored team defeated on its home ice in the final game. Baseball's peculiar schedule In major league baseball, scheduling is a problem, particularly early in the season, when cold temperatures and snow can throw everybody a curve.
This was plain last week as numerous games were postponed because of the spring blizzard. Observers were perplexed, however, to find four California teams hoarding their sunshine by playing each other (San Francisco at Los Angeles, California at Oakland).And why was San Diego hosting Atlanta, while Texas traveled to Yankee Stadium? Maybe most baffling was the opening series between Minnesota and Seattle, two teams with domed stadiums.
Logically, it seems, every warm-weather or climate-controlled site should be utilized during the season's first week or so. The schedule makers will tell you that this isn't possible, that any number of factors prohibit it, such as the ban on having the Dodgers and Angels or Giants and A's at home together. Then there's the desire by most teams to open at home, or at least to minimize their road dates early in the season. These general guidelines, plus special team requests, increase the complications.
One way of skirting some of the problems experienced last week would be to start the season later. Of course, the owners won't hear of shortening the current 162-game campaign, and they cringe at playing doubleheaders. They want as many single admisssion games as possible. But why not play games in the afternoon, clear the ballpark, then hold an evening contest, as is frequently done anyway later in the season to make up games that were postponed in April? Even if this arrangement were only used on weekends, a more compact season, with more days off, might be possible. Some points to contemplate . . .what's the sports world coming to when sportswriters can demand huge salaries as free agents, as has happened recently?
. . .has any mascot ever done as well as ''The Chicken,'' who's taken out a full-page ad in the Sporting News for his 103-city 1982 North American tour?
. . .would George Steinbrenner's antics be news if he owned the Seattle Mariners? (The Yankee owner is the subject of two new biographies.) On the basketball front
* In a bold coaching move, Bill Fitch has Larry Bird and Nate (Tiny) Archibald, a pair of all-stars, coming off the the Boston Celtics' bench. Whether this strategy will carry over into pro basketball's playoffs is unknown.
Instead of reinserting Bird or Archibald into the starting lineup after they returned from injuries, Fitch has gone with Kevin McHale in Bird's old spot and either Gerald Henderson or M.L. Carr in Archibald's. Larry and Tiny seem perfectly content to come in later, sort of as twin sixth men. The sixth man's role - assumed by such players as John Havlicek and Frank Ramsey over the years - has always been one of special significance to the Celtics.
* The public may never know who Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps had in mind when he blew the whistle on several colleges for supposedly paying $10,000 a year to basketball recruits. Phelps named names, but only privately to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has the power to punish rulebreakers. Other coaches jumped on the bandwagon, reporting they were aware of illegalities without divulging specifics. The NCAA's enforcement staff, as a result, will be extra busy during the next year investigating new leads. Unless the coaches pointing the accusing fingers were misinformed, some basketball programs will find themselves in hot water soon.