A friend and I were recently debating which professional sport currently has the best postseason. They're all great, of course, but I argued that the pick definitely had to be…well, you'll see shortly. One man's rankings, in reverse order:
4. MLB: Somebody has to bring up the rear. Baseball gets the honor chiefly because these rankings are using only recent history as a rubric. And the recent history of the World Series is not pretty: Three of the last four Fall Classics have been sweeps, with 2002 being the last time we saw a game seven (the incredibly unmemorable Angels-Giants World Series). Bottom line: It doesn't matter how good the first two rounds are if there's no transfixing culmination.
3. NBA: Pro hoops is currently giving us a stirring Western Conference slugfest, so it's tough to be too upset, but the comical power disparity between the conferences is still there. The Western Conference's San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers have combined to win seven of the last nine titles, and that doesn't even come close to quantifying how large the gap really is.
Repeated instances of top players receiving questionable treatment also docks the league some points here. Somehow, the NBA developed a culture - unseen in any other sport - in which the refs coddle its superstars. Don't think so? Check the tape from the 2006 Finals and look for Dwyane Wade. He'll be the guy standing at the free-throw line.
2. NFL: Single-elimination format, cold-weather games, shirtless fans going insane in the stands, off-the-charts intensity on the field, half the people you know gambling on every game…what's not to like?
Well, the action only takes place on weekends. That's a bummer. The NFL is the only pro sport that makes you wait a full week between contests, and the rhythm of its postseason suffers as a result.
Is there an alternative? Probably not. The same ferocity of football that makes it attractive to so many also means its players need time to rest. That's not going to change. But the NFL probably doesn't mind having a full week to hype each game, either, so screw them: They get second place.
1. NHL: The only sport where you can watch not one iota of the regular-season, only to stumble across a playoff game and be hooked on the spot. I mean, good lord: The palpable intensity on the ice practically comes through your TV set; each team's rabid fans galvanize their respective club and lift them to another level; and most of the players don grisly playoff beards. Sign me up!
Beyond that, playoff hockey lays claim to one intrinsic quality that no other sport can match: the importance of every possession. Goals are few and far between, true, but a team can score at any point - and without warning. With the added magnitude of the playoffs - and hardly any commercials to fragment the action - fans have no choice but to remain at the edge of their collective seats throughout. You can't stop watching. It's impossible.
Does this put every die-hard fan at constant risk for a heart attack? Sure. But it also makes the NHL playoffs a unique, transcendent experience - so long as you don't fall off your chair.