It’s April, which means the start of that magical time of the year when success is indicated by growing a long beard, death knells come in the sound of airhorns and widespread repetitive-stress injuries are induced by miniature towels: It’s the NHL playoffs.
And even though hockey may be less appreciated than football, basketball and baseball by the national media, the Stanley Cup playoffs are a spectacle unlike any other in American professional sports: so grueling, so exciting, so stressful that there’s really no good excuse to not tune in.
They call the Stanley Cup the hardest trophy to win in professional sports, and not without reason. You’ve got to be lucky in a game centered around a tiny, awkwardly shaped disk sliding across a sheet of ice, where a fluky bounce or two can be the difference. You’ve got to be healthy in a game that can leave rosters with breaks and sprains from top to bottom by the end of the season. You’ve got to be consistent in a game so low-scoring that a few seconds of mental error by one player can decide 60 minutes of action.
And you’ve got to do it 16 times.
Two months of near perfection. A bad week and you’re out; a good week and you’re not quite out yet.
History speaks to just how much parity there is hockey. Since the current playoff format was instituted in 1994, nine No. 8 seeds (out of 34) have upset a No. 1 seed in the first round; by contrast, only four No. 8 seeds in the NBA have won a series since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984, and two of those upsets were in more volatile five-game series.
Only four seven-game series in American sports history have been won by a team that came back from a 3-0 deficit. Three of them were in hockey.
Anyone can win any game, any series, any year against anyone else, which makes for some pretty good storylines. The playoff opener on Wednesday was between two interstate rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, each of which made it to the Stanley Cup final in recent years but came in as just a middle seed. No matter; the Penguins jumped out to a 3-0 first period advantage on their home ice but saw that lead erased, with the Flyers tying things up in the final eight minutes of regulation and winning in overtime, 4-3.
Playoff overtime exemplifies everything that makes hockey so unique. Everything is magnified and nothing is certain. There’s no bottom of the 10th if you give up a run, no five-minute period to make up for an early three-pointer, no field-goal-on-first-possession rule to bail you out if you lose the coin toss. Sudden death means sudden death, and that’s what it often comes down to.
In a thrilling first-round series between the one-seed San Jose Sharks and the eight-seed Colorado Avalanche two years ago, the Sharks were 30 seconds away from going behind 2-0 in the series, an embarrassment on home ice for one of the league’s top teams. But a late tally off a rebound forced overtime, and a power-play goal by San Jose sent the series to Colorado knotted up at one game apiece.
Just two days later, the two teams found themselves in a scoreless game through 60 minutes and headed to overtime yet again. Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle proceeded to make the biggest mistake of his prestigious career, backhanding the puck into his own net from a bad angle to give away the game—and the chance at a series lead.
Two days later, Boyle got some redemption by scoring San Jose’s only regulation goal just a minute into Game 4. The score was tied at the end of regulation for a third straight contest but this time the Sharks came up with the sudden-death goal, and a series that could’ve easily been swept by the Avalanche was tied at 2-2.
It all changes that quickly, and we’ve got two full months of twists and turns ahead.
Most people seem to be picking the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1994, but there are still 15 other teams that truly have a chance at winning it all. No other American sports league lays so much on the line come playoff time.
So if you’re going to give hockey a try, now’s the perfect time. With every series televised nationally this year, there’s always going to be a game on.
Sit back and relax. You’re in for a wild ride.
Joseph Beyda hopes that his beloved seventh-seed San Jose Sharks will finally pull through this year. Send him your playoff predictions at firstname.lastname@example.org.