Outside of the opening four days of the NCAA March Madness tournament, the NHL playoffs feature the most exciting game-to-game single-day play in the universe.
MLB in October is intense, but because there is more on the line, the games drag on with every pitch, which makes it pretty boring for your casual sports fan as well as excessively time consuming. The NFL playoffs are super exciting, but games are held just twice a week and the culminating event — the Super Bowl — is about the entertainment spectacle (commercials, halftime show) instead of just the play on the field.
The NBA, well, the NBA playoffs seem to last about 10 months, and I tend to not pay much attention until the elimination games of the conference championships.
But playoff hockey — wow. I never played the sport and have only attended one NHL game in my life, but that doesn’t matter as it captivated me from a young age. I remember watching Detroit play a triple-overtime game over Anaheim late into the night in 1997 — when I was in fifth grade. Years later in high school I remember staying up until past 2 a.m. on multiple occasions watching triple-OT games to completion (fun fact, there were five 3-OT games my junior year in 2003 alone).
The point is, I thought playoff hockey was perfect just as it is.
Then COVID-19 happened and paused the NHL regular season in its final weeks. After more than four months of waiting — and six weeks after the Stanley Cup Finals were to be played — hockey came back. The league expanded the playoffs to 24 teams and split up the Eastern and Western conferences into two bubbles; Edmonton and Toronto. The top four teams in each conference played a round robin to decide the top four seeds for the second round. The other teams played best-of-five series.
The opening round of games began the first weekend in August and each game aired on either NBC, NBC Sports or streamed on the NBC Sports app. From 11 a.m. each day to 1 a.m. or later at night — it was constant hockey.
And. It. Was. Awesome.
Remember how I said hockey was basically perfect? Yeah, that was before “Bubble” hockey (not to be confused with the fantastic table-top bubble hockey game at bars and arcades). Despite having zero fans in the stands, first round action was just as intense as ever. And again, there was always a game on.
The Penguins, the team that holds most of my rooting interests, were supposed to breeze past Montreal, but instead were bumped out in just four games. Chicago, my wife’s favorite team and the other rooting interest of mine, wouldn’t have qualified for the postseason under normal conditions, but here they were, knocking off the Oilers in the West. In fact, of the eight first-round matchups, five underdogs won their matchups.
That means the sport has two of its biggest stars (Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid) out of the playoffs early. But that’s fine with me, because it’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs and I have zero fear it will become less exciting.
I am a proponent of the NHL switching to this format every year from now on. Like I said, constant all-day hockey is exhilarating and amazing. There were six elimination games alone on Aug. 7.
Some out there don’t like the format and can’t wait to go back to the 16-team system of the past several years, like Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. When asked about switching formats in an Aug. 7 meeting with reporters, he simply said “no,” adding that “I think this is a unique situation and the system we had before is the best way.”
Holtby is not alone. Ian Cole of the Colorado Avalanche said that teams have 82 regular season games to make the postseason. “Obviously we’re in a different situation here. But adding another round, adding another two weeks or two-and-a-half weeks to an already two-and-a-half month long playoff, I don’t know how much sense that makes for me.”
Well, for one, Ian, the league will stand to make a lot more money once fans are allowed back into arenas. Now maybe that means the first two rounds are five-game series like it was back in the 1980s, and only conference and Stanley Cup finals are a best of seven — that could trim down the length, especially since this year’s first round took just eight days to complete. Maybe letting in eight more teams to the playoffs drops the regular season from 82 games to 80 or even 78. Four games make up about a week and a half of the regular season, which almost evens it all up.
I’d again like to emphasize that more playoff hockey is a positive, not a negative.
Does that mean a true Stanley Cup contender gets bumped early in a fluke series against a team that was otherwise garbage for much of the season? Of course. Again, look at Pittsburgh, Edmonton and three other squads from this past week. But that would just emphasize to teams how important those top four seeds would be — to play in the round robin and be guaranteed a sport in the second round.
And not that it is without precedent: In the 1990-91 season, 16 of the 21 teams in the league made the playoffs. Beginning next year there will be 32 teams, with the expansion Seattle Kraken joining the ranks. Also, the NHL is so underrated it’s disappointing. The newest MLB nicknames are the Marlins, Rockies and Nationals. The NFL’s newest franchises were the Texans, Panthers, Ravens and Jaguars. The NBA went with Pelicans and Thunder in their most recent name changes. Clearly “Kraken” is the best nickname of the bunch, and it’s not even close.
What COVID-19 has taught me about professional sports — other than “bubbles” work — is that in a pinch, players and leagues can get creative and innovative in a positive way to not just get games in, but to help the sport prosper during the largest global catastrophe (both medically and economically) in almost 100 years. And that’s a positive thing.
— Adam Krebs is a reporter for the times and can beat you in NHL ’94. That’s just a fact. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for comments, debate, or to set up a one-on-one matchup for 16-bit glory.