The beginning of spring is perhaps the most exciting time of year in the sports world. The Masters is played, National Basketball Association playoffs begin, Major League Baseball exits spring training and begins regular season play and, of course, the National Hockey League Stanley Cup Playoffs commence.
The playoffs in the NHL are unlike any other professional sport, which the fans and players recognize. Ask any fan and they will tell you that watching a playoff game in the NHL is completely different from the regular season. The hits are harder, the pace is faster and every inch of ice and loose puck is contested. These differences are facilitated by how the NHL has set up their system.
It is no secret that of the major sports in the United States, hockey is not the most popular nationwide. Until expansions in the 90s and early 2000s, the game has been centered upon the northeast in the U.S. and Canada. It simply does not have a range like football and baseball. When the playoffs start, however, it is clear that the NHL has done something right.
First, it is hard to make the playoffs in the NHL, which makes every season an exciting one. To make the Cup Playoffs, it takes a full talented roster and a winning record. This is contrary to the NBA where, some years, teams below or at .500 make the postseason, causing some boring first round matchups.
In the NHL, every series seems to be exciting. The top seeded Washington Capitals are down two games to one to the No. 8 seed Toronto Maple Leafs with every game so far going into at least one overtime, as of Wednesday April 19.
Another aspect of the Stanley Cup playoffs that sets it apart is the length. Hockey fans get to look forward to almost two months of playoff hockey with games just about every night. The four best of seven series allows the playoffs to run longer and ensures that the best team usually comes out victorious. This is contrary to the NFL, where it is win or go home and games are only played once a week.
NHL playoff games are accessible, which is more than what can be said about some professional sport playoffs. The Super Bowl seems to have morphed into more of a celebrity red carpet event than a sporting event and the game is not played at either teams’ home field.
At the Stanley Cup Playoffs, however, home ice advantage is a tangible thing that teams work toward; it allows local fans the opportunity to attend the game. This seemingly small detail has a huge effect on the atmosphere of the games.
The postseason in the NHL is the most exciting two months in the hockey world, whether your team is in it or not. Even the name of the postseason, “the Stanley Cup Playoffs,” separates itself from the pack. It reminds fans and players alike what they are playing for. What they are working toward and what, if the stars align, they will be hoisting at the end of May.