Don’t click the back button just yet. Yes, this is a hockey related piece, but you should give it a chance. If you are an average sports fan you probably have glossed over the token NHL Playoff headline when you take your morning peruse of internet stories before you actually start working. You might get a kick out of Barry Melrose’s nice suits and slicked back hair on SportsCenter, but you may not even pay any attention to the actual highlight.
You should start paying attention.
The 2012 NHL Playoffs has been one of the most intense playoffs in any sport in the last decade. Do yourself a favor and watch all the melees on www.hockeyfights.com, an infinitely entertaining resource. Hockey is great because when you see somebody go after one of your teammates you immediately see teammates dive-bomb the offender with reckless abandon. In no other sport is this even close to being replicated. In the Phoenix Coyotes/Chicago Blackhawks series (already littered with violence) I watched Raffi Torres absolutely clean Marion Hossa’s clock on an illegal hit where Torres left his feet and dropped a shoulder into Hossa’s head. As soon as he can, Chicago player Brandon Bollig beelines for Torres and gets a game misconduct for trying to concave Torres’ face, inciting a 10 man pileup that looked like rugby scrum.How can you not love how players go out of their way to get their buddies’ back? Even Sidney Crosby (known for his scoring and head injuries and not his physicality) has gotten into the mix. Thank goodness Pittsburgh and Philly got to play each other in the first round. They absolutely hate each other, and since Pittsburgh basically knew they were about to go down 3 games to none, their only response was to try and beat the crap out of everybody they saw. They want Philly to be so worn out by the time they actually get to the second round that they get mercilessly blown out. Multiple times there were extending fighting sequences that involved basically everybody on the ice.
The amount of fire these guys are playing with should melt the ice. I seriously would challenge anybody to watch a game in the Penguins/Flyers series and tell me they didn’t enjoy that (if the Penguins are still in it by the time you read this). In no other sport do players recklessly go after every play, take suspensions because of retaliatory moves or band together at every moment to solidify team unity. Aside from all of that, several overtime games, goalies almost fighting each other, and unbelievable stick work by some of the most talented players in the world, it’s pretty boring.
I will admit I have only followed the NHL playoffs for maybe 2 ½ seasons now, but every time I do I am quickly reminded why. Before even going into why this year’s playoffs have been even better, you should understand that an average chase for the Stanley Cup (the best trophy in sports by far) rivals the other major sports versions and even surpass them in many categories. Playoffs should be rated on just these criteria:
- Overall parity
- Intensity of play (and what the difference is between a normal regular season game and a normal playoff game)
- How the matchups usually shake out
- The format
- Playoff specific storylines
- The number of memorable moments/game created throughout the duration
Hockey immediately wins the overall parity category (which is why it is at the top of my list obviously). Yes, the NFL has seen the Giants and Steelers win road game after road game on the way to Super Bowl titles, but the NHL hasn’t seen a repeat winner since 1997-1998 (Detroit Red Wings), and to boot, the 8th seeded Kings are up 3-0 against the 1st seeded Canucks in this year’s version. The NHLers have also seen more 3 games to none comebacks than the MLB or NBA. 6th, 7th, and 8th seeds almost never win in the NBA. Baseball has probably been the biggest exception with Wild Card teams winning several of the World Series titles in the past decade (although those teams are usually really good anyways because of how the baseball playoff are set up, but we’ll get to that).
Intensity should probably THE defining characteristic of a good set of playoffs. If there is not a palpable feeling that all players and (real) fans get, then you have a problem. Now I’m sure everyone can point out several games from each sport that demonstrate this type of next level intensity (recently- Penguins v. Flyers game 3 this year, Grizzlies v. Thunder 3OT game last year, and 49ers v. Saints NFC Divisional playoff game last year come to mind) but it seems to me unless it’s a rivalry game or possibly a conference championship, other sports don’t always have the obvious increase in intensity from regular to post-season.
Looking at how the matchups pan out is an interesting notion. Hockey probably doesn’t match up quite as well here comparatively because the playoff teams are usually shuffled around quite a bit from season to season so you don’t always get playoff matchup repeats. The NBA typically has some more of these which always end up being a ton of fun (Heat vs. Knicks a few years back with Jeff Van Gundy riding around on Alonzo Mourning’s leg is a good example).
The format I think really comes down to more of a personal preference. The NFL is do-or-die in every round, which kind of suits that particular league, but does the best team always wind up winning the Super Bowl? If not, should it matter? Would it have played out differently in a best of 7 series? I like the changes that baseball has made to let extra teams in. That being said, a one game “first round” really goes against the strategy of baseball teams – having a couple of good starters and gritty players. I still think the best of 7 format every step of the way is extremely taxing, but at the end when somebody is hoisting the trophy you feel as if they have earned it in every way possible.
Playoff specific story lines usually circle around things like ‘Will Player X finally win his championship?’ or ‘Does Player or Team X have the necessary amount of clutch to win a title’. Those can be entertaining to see play out because you get stories like John Elway finally winning the Super Bowl or teams like the Detroit Pistons winning it all because of some superhuman performances by several players. Sometimes even better storylines come out of a team’s personal playoff history or their shared playoff history with a particular postseason rival.
After digesting all of that, at the end of the day it’s going to be about what you remember. What is the game or moment that will stick with you through all of next year’s regular season that makes you lose your mind waiting for the playoffs to start again? Just take a look at the Stanley Cup playoffs this year and you might be surprised what creeps back in your mind next April.