As we sit here in mid-February, many are looking forward to the men's NCAA basketball tournament or March Madness which is set to begin in about a month. While highly exciting in its own right, there is another tournament which begins shortly after the hoops are done in early April. This tournament receives less fanfare here in America, but I personally enjoy it more than March Madness. By the title of the entry you know I am referring to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Hockey has the most parity of any of the four major North American sports. It is truly the case that any NHL can defeat any other NHL team on a given night. Just a quick glance at the standings right now show how contentious the playoff race is..only the Blue Jackets and possibly Edmonton are totally out of it at this point. Once a team makes that top 8 and secures a playoff berth, they can become hot and outplay their regular season record.
For example, in 2006 the 8th seeded Edmonton Oilers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final as Western Conference champions. They started their improbable run by defeating the mighty Red Wings, winners of the President's Trophy for best regular season record, and who were thought to be unbeatable. The Oilers came within one game of the Cup that year, losing to Carolina in 7 games. Just two years ago the Flyers (a 7 seed) advanced to the Final. Any team who has solid goalie play and a balanced offense can catch fire come playoff time.
In addition, hockey is the sport in which statistically home advantage means the least..the last four Stanley Cups were won on road ice. Aside from the rare crowd eruptions due to goals and big hits, the home ice advantage is almost effectively neutralized as the players just focus on finishing their shifts hard like they've done all the way through juniors. Close contests and wins on the road are much more common in this game than other sports, which further enhances the unpredictable and fun aspect.
I encourage anyone new to the sport of hockey to give the playoffs a chance this year. They are a source of exciting and gripping play, with one goal and OT games on the docket almost every night. Series sweeps are very rare, with the majority of series going 6 or 7 games. The more hockey is exposed here in America, the more people seem to like it. It is my hope that sooner rather than later the mainstream sports media will give hockey the attention it deserves..and not a mere mention in passing on Sportscenter.