A lot of people “don’t like” hockey. Most of said people have never watched a game or a playoff series and likely have little-to-no understanding of the game they choose to blindly bash, otherwise, they would certainly sing a different tune.
Only a few games into the postseason this year and we’re already witnessing upsets-galore as the NHL is taking us on one heck of a wild ride that nobody wants to get off of just yet.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs is perhaps the most exciting postseason in all of North American professional team sports not only because of the increased intensity of an already fast and furious game, but also because of the predictably unpredictable results.
Unlike football, baseball or basketball, the “underdogs” frequently get the best of the favorites when Lord Stanley is involved as the NHL playoffs provide all kinds of crazy drama in “truth is stranger than fiction” fashion. Just like in the early rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, it’s easy to gravitate to teams with players you’ve never heard of solely because they have the potential to be that Cinderella story. The NHL playoffs give us a solid underdog storyline or two nearly every year as lower seeds routinely give higher seeds a run for their money.
In the Western Conference, the 8-seed Los Angeles Kings lead the 1-seed Vancouver Canucks (last year’s Cup runner up) two games to none in the first round as L.A. stole back-to-back road games in British Columbia. Meanwhile the 8-seed Washington Capitals logged a double-overtime win over the top dog Bruins in Boston to tie the first-round series 1-1.
What are the chances that either of these 8-seeds actually pull off the upset and beat the 1-seed in the series? Believe it or not, that feat has been accomplished nine times in 34 tries since the NHL adopted its current playoff format 17 years ago. When you crunch those numbers, the 8-seed beats the 1-seed in the conference quarterfinals 28.1 percent of the time. That might not seem like a lot, but in comparison to the NBA where we’ve only seen the 8-seed down the 1-seed four times, EVER, the odds aren’t terrible for the little guys!
Recent history is even more favorable to hockey’s lower seeds. According to Grantland, the higher-seeded team has won 62.5 percent of first-round matchups since NHL play resumed in 2005 after the season-long lockout. 62.5 percent is not an impressive figure if you are the higher-seeded team. Plus, that number gives the underdog a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs. In that same time frame, the higher seed in the NBA has won 79.2 percent of first-round series.
Once the postseason starts, anything is possible in the NHL where parody finds its way into the field of 16. But the 8-seed isn’t the only playoff cellar-dweller having success this year as the 4-seed Pittsburgh Penguins are in a predicament, down 2-0 to the 5-seed Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins placement in the fourth slot is misleading as Pittsburgh had the second-best point total out East but was relegated to the 4-seed because they finished a point behind the New York Rangers who won their division.
The Pens are extremely talented especially now that Sidney Crosby is back on the ice, but the Flyers are tough as nails and extra motivated after being swept by the Bruins in the second round last season. I suppose it’s all cyclical as the Bruins sweep of the Flyers in 2011 was retribution for the Philly’s historic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit to beat the Bruins in Boston in 7 games back in 2010. Despite the roster differences, the Flyers are rough and confident, much like they were in 2010 and will take no pity on Crosby or any of his teammates. Then again, it wouldn’t shock me if the Pens came back from this 2-0 deficit to win the series, despite the odds now in the Flyers favor. According to NHL.com, teams trailing 2-0 in a best-of-seven series have come back to win the series only 12.7 percent of the time (37-291).
That leads us to the Kings and Canucks. A series victory looks promising for the Kings who are not only bringing a 2-0 series lead back home to L.A., but the Canucks will play a near must-win Game Three without star left winger Daniel Sedin who has been sidelined with a concussion since late March and did not make the trip to Southern California.
Then again, this marks just the third time in team history the Kings have held a 2-0 series lead (first time on the road) and the franchise has NEVER won a Stanley Cup. Despite the Kings’ historical lack of success, at least the roster has some experienced players who will do their best to shake off the stink of the record books and instead, smell the sweetness of victory as L.A. looks to turn the page.
Another team who struggled, fired its head coach and managed to salvage the season to the point of making the playoffs is Washington. Sure, the Caps have Alex Ovechkin and a hot young goalie in Braden Holtby but I can’t see Washington getting past the defending Cup champion Bruins. As superb as Holtby has been, Saturday’s game was his second career playoff game and only his 21st career NHL game, period! Tim Thomas eats those numbers for lunch.
Then again, the NHL Playoffs is the perfect place to expect the unexpected. I’m sayin’ there’s a chance…
Tonight’s Lakers vs. Celtics game reminded me of college when I used to go watch a group of my guy friends play intramural flag football. My girlfriends and I would cheer them on and sometimes go as far as making corny little signs, just to be supportive and make them feel good. Most of these guys were athletes whose careers ended with a high school diploma while their competitive spirit long outlasted their physical ability. I would always chuckle as the guys took flag football SO seriously, celebrating a good play like they won the Super Bowl and becoming furious with the smallest of failures. Although way past their athletic prime, my buddies loved to compete and played every game like it meant the world to them.
That’s how tonight’s Lakers vs. Celtics game felt to me. It was such a fun game and between the playoff-like atmosphere in the TD Garden and the close finish, the contest provided more than sufficient entertainment. At the same time, it made me sad to see two teams, once powerhouses, just shells of their former selves.
In 53 minutes of play, neither team made it to 90 points, both shooting around 39 percent from the field. 39 percent. Yikes. When the Lakers and Celtics were playing for titles in the latter part of the decade, each team had a strong presence down low (Perkins, Gasol and Bynum) and solid bench players; role players who were reliable and knew how to help their team.
If the Celtics can make it to the NBA Finals with Jermaine O’Neal starting at center without a legitimate backup, I’d be speechless…for once. Ever. Greg Stiemsa has potential, but he isn’t good enough right now and I don’t see Leon Powe walking through that door anytime soon. The Lakers outscored the Celtics in the paint 46-38 which isn’t that impressive considering LA has such a huge size advantage over Boston.
Three of the five bench players who played for the Celtics contributed 19 of Boston’s 87 total points, a near mirror-image of the Lakers bench which was responsible for 18 points between three of the four guys who played. Most of LA’s bench points came late as the non-starters were practically invisible through the majority of the game.
There were some positives though. Just like the good old days, it came down to Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce laying it all out on the line; no guts, no glory. The Celtics captain played 48 minutes in which he scored 18 points, grabbed nine boards and logged seven assists, not to mention sinking a gorgeous jumper to give Boston a 1-point lead with under two minutes to play in overtime. But it wasn’t enough.
Ray Allen, dropping 22 points and giving us a classic old school 1-on-1 defensive battle with Kobe - holding him to 27 points, well under his 30 points per game average - wasn’t enough either. Kevin Garnett, once the heart and soul of the Celtics (and perhaps he still is in certain ways) had a miserable shooting night, going 6-23 and missing his last nine consecutive shots.
The Lakers and Celtics are two of the oldest teams in the NBA so 17 fast break points for Boston (LA scored only six) is one positive to take away from a loss like this. On the other hand, the free throw opportunities were heavily skewed in LA’s favor, as the Celtics were called for 21 personal fouls to the Lakers’ 12.
Kobe, a master of drawing fouls, among other things, was superb in the second half, demoralizing Boston with plays like the one in the third quarter when he patiently waited down low, eventually spinning around three defenders for the bucket, followed by a shot right over Allen, who did as much as he could to prevent it.
Pau Gasol, who has been in a funk since last season finally played the way he has for so many years, picking the right spots, rebounding, tipping and shooting his way to 25 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks, all on the same day as he was left off of the NBA All-Star roster.
Also with something to prove (and hoping to avoid being traded) is Andrew Bynum who scored 16 points, blocked three shots and more importantly, hauled in 17 boards as he and Gasol combined for 31 rebounds. Gasol and Bynum were responsible for critical blocks and deflections, Gasol winning the game for the Lakers as he blocked Ray Allen’s layup attempt as time expired in the extra period.
Interestingly, the Lakers are unmatched down low with Bynum and Gasol yet have been unable to find a way to get them the ball which has been a source of the team’s struggles. It wasn’t pretty, but tonight, they figured it out.
I’m convinced Steve Blake is the key to the Lakers success. Before he injured his ribs a few weeks ago, the Lakers point guard was playing the best basketball of his professional career. Blake and Bryant seemed to be the only two Lakers who truly understood Mike Brown’s system (and Blake was actually hitting shots too) so when he went down, it looked like the glue holding the Lakers together had evaporated. With Blake (not including tonight), the Lakers were 8-4. Without him, the team found itself in deep trouble going 6-7. While Blake was beyond rusty tonight, he helped his team get the job done down the stretch.
As badly as we want this rivalry to be what it once was a few years ago, or what it has been at different points over the past several decades, it just doesn’t feel the same. The competition is still there, but the level of play is not.
Remember when Rondo and Bynum represented the future? Now they are the present, which means some of the best players in hoops history will soon be a thing of the past.
The fact that these two teams were so cordial to each other on the court, conversing, helping each other up when someone hit the deck… perhaps that is their way of acknowledging that they aren’t what, or who they once were; That they appreciated all of those ugly hard-fought battles and wish so badly to go back to that place in time.
Whether it’s in the regular season or the playoffs, an all-star game or a charity game, or even a flag football game, we can always count on the fiercest form of competition between these two teams; the kind that will forever be worth cheering for.