You have a favorite sport, and then maybe you have a sport that's in your blood. I grew up playing hockey, but I honestly prefer to watch more basketball in the months between football ending and baseball starting to pick up. Say maybe three basketball games to one hockey game. When the playoffs for both sports start, however, everything changes and my attention switches from the NBA to the NHL. The reason is simply because while basketball gets more exciting in the later rounds, every round in the chase for the Stanley Cup is exciting; you think you know what will happen, but you can never be sure.
While I'll concede that this year's NBA playoffs have been better than most, especially watching Oklahoma City's ascension, Cleveland trying to get that title-deprived city something to root for, and wondering what will happen to the Warriors with their historic regular season record, you have to look no further than tonight's game 7 conference final matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning to confirm everything you need to know about just how great the NHL playoffs truly are.
First, no matter what round, there's nothing more exciting in sports than a game 7. Lose and you're dead, that's sports. The season ends for one team and another advances; yet there's something about the little bit of extra urgency that you get in hockey. Whether it's the first round, after teams have just started getting pummeled, with three more possible rounds to go, or the last round, where one goal can have you lifting the greatest trophy in professional sports, and a long summer wondering how you'll get another shot.
But it's more than just that. Nearly every game, no matter how tough or speedy the teams might be, whether they're in the playoffs because they grind it out or they score a ton of goals, teams play their asses off. There's plenty of blood, teeth, fists flying, heroic feats, and all that visceral stuff that gets some people in the sport in the first place. For a few weeks, it's everything you could ever ask for from hockey.
May and June is when the best hockey is played, but it's also the worst for watching it. This has been the biggest obstacle between the sport battling with soccer for the 4th and 5th most popular sports in the United States. The equation just doesn't work: Game played on ice during a time of year when most people can only think of summer starting + Baseball + Basketball playoffs. Hockey has struggled to capture the attention of fans the way football and basketball have, and all the slight rule changes the league has made over the years to try and make the sport faster and more exciting haven't really done much to change that. What the sport needs to do is focus on the thing it does best: playoffs.
You're probably asking how the league does that. I mean, the entire point of the regular season is to try and get to the big dance. You can't cut the season down, that wouldn't make sense. You also can't really cut down the playoffs, because you shouldn't ruin the best thing you've got going. So the simple solution is to move the start of the season back. Stop starting things off the first week of October, and do it in September. Sure, you're competing with the NFL, college football, and the last stretch of the baseball season, but if you carve out a little extra time to wrap things up, the best part of your season is winding down just as the NBA playoffs start up. Seriously, how hard can it be to move an entire sports season back one month?
But of course, that probably will never happen. The best playoffs in all of sports will continue to be sadly overshadowed by its competition. The best hope the sport has is for sports fans to figure it out if they haven't already, and tune into games like tonight's battle between the Pens and Bolts.
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