It’s the most wonderful time of the year! You can have Christmas. For me, April through June are truly my favorite months, at least on the sports calendar. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are in full swing, as each first-round series will have finished three games by the end of play tonight. There have been some truly stunning developments early on. The best team in the sport has been pushed to the brink of elimination in the blink of an eye. Home ice advantage has been relatively meaningless, as the home and road splits are pretty much even so far (11-9 in favor of the home squads). And of course, we’ve seen the typical bad blood brewing between combatants on opposing sides. You get the sense that many of these teams genuinely dislike one another. It’s fucking beautiful.
Experiencing the Stanley Cup Playoffs through a Canadian lens for the last two years has really illuminated how special hockey’s postseason is in my mind. It’s a shame that the sport is treated as a punchline in some parts of the US. But honestly, if you’re ignoring the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I don’t know what else to say other than that is very much your loss.
Look, I’m not going to be the guy who screams “WATCH MY FAVORITE SPORT!” at people who aren’t interested, because frankly, it’s a lame and ultimately pointless thing to do. But if you are a casual fan or a newcomer to NHL hockey, you just might watch these games and learn something that, to me, is undeniable fact. And that fact is that the Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy to win in all of sports.
Don’t believe me? Wanna tell me that it’s more difficult to win a Super Bowl? A World Series? An NCAA championship? An NBA title? Not a chance. First, the NHL playoffs are a two-month ordeal, as in the length of the NCAA tournament and MLB playoffs COMBINED. It is a near guarantee that between the two teams that play for the Stanley Cup this year, at least half of the competitors on each side will be playing through significant pain. I’m not talking about the headache that caused you to call out of work last week. Which, by the way, no judgment there. Lord knows I’ve used some pretty lame excuses to get out of work in the past. But what I am talking about is the kind of pain sustained by occurrences like taking a PUCK to your FACE.
Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks knows all about what that feels like. He was credited with a goal in Game 1 of the Sharks’ series against the Vegas Golden Knights after a wicked wrister off the stick of teammate Brent Burns ricocheted off of his damn jaw and into the net. The impact of that shot didn’t even knock him off his feet, though it did knock out some of his chompers. He calmly skated off the ice, got the necessary repairs and was back in time for the second period. Absurd.
During the playoffs, players will finish every check and even the biggest stars will give up their bodies to block shots flying toward the net at triple-digit speeds. Naturally, you’re bound to collect a few bumps and bruises along the way. Playing through pain is certainly not a concept unheard of in other realms of sport, but it seemingly happens every year in every series during the Stanley Cup playoffs. These guys are all required to pay a physical price every time they set foot on the ice.
But maybe you’re not convinced. I’ve heard the argument that the NCAA Tournament is more difficult to win because of the 68-team field and the single-elimination aspect that it brings to the table. That same aspect could also fool you into thinking it’s tougher to win a Super Bowl. That’s a fine argument, but look at the flip side. It takes just six postseason wins to earn a National Championship – seven if you’re one of the teams in the First Four. You need no more than four playoff wins in the NFL to take home the Lombardi Trophy. But it takes four rounds and sixteen victories to win the Cup. There is no other major sport that requires a team to win more games to take home the grand prize. I can already hear my hoop heads out there saying, “But! But!.” Yes, the NBA champion will also have won sixteen games by the time that postseason is finished, but that brings me to my next point.
On the subject of parity, the NHL has it in spades. The NBA playoff field has been infamously top-heavy since forever. The higher seeds in the NCAA Tournament (i.e., the teams more likely to win) also have an easier road to the later rounds because they often have easier matchups, certainly for the first few games. As an illustration of that point, 16-seeds have won exactly one game in tournament history. In the NFL, the top two seeds in each conference don’t even have to play in the first round. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning, on the heels of a historically prolific regular season, are currently getting their asses handed to them in the first round by the last team to make it into the dance from the Eastern Conference, the Columbus Blue Jackets. It’s not like this is a one-off happening either. Teams that finished the regular season with the NHL’s best record have only won it all four times since the turn of the century. Only one other such team has even made it to the Stanley Cup Final.
Much of what makes the Cup such a difficult prize to win is obviously the fact that hockey is a full contact sport, and that physicality only escalates as the stakes get higher. The lack of physical play helps to eliminate baseball and basketball from this conversation. With no disrespect to the grind that getting through the NBA playoff schedule necessitates, it seems that nowadays if you sneeze too hard in someone’s direction, the referees will blow the whistle and send the offended player to the free throw line.
Being that football is widely regarded as the only sport more physical than hockey, perhaps you’d like to argue that the Super Bowl is more difficult to win. There’s no doubt that attrition goes hand in hand with football perhaps more than any other sport. But remember, football players only play on either the offensive OR defensive side of the ball, whereas hockey players are responsible for taking care of both ends of the ice. And both jobs require getting your hands dirty, so to speak.
Teams competing in the NFL playoffs also only have to compete once a week, with those teams fortunate enough to get to the Super Bowl being rewarded with an additional week off before the big game. NHL playoff games are played every other night for two months. There is no time to rest, and no time to heal. No time to dwell on your last loss, and hardly any time to look forward to your next game. Momentum plays a bigger role in the Stanley Cup playoffs than in any other sport’s postseason.
The Stanley Cup is so treasured that many youngin’s aspiring to become hockey stars are taught not to so much as lay a finger on the Cup. The legend goes that the honor of touching the Holy Grail is reserved for those that are good enough to win it. To this day, that remains my personal favorite sports superstition. If there is any trophy on the planet that deserves such reverence, it is the Stanley Cup. Simply put, it is the most difficult prize to win in sports. The next two months of hockey figure to go a long way towards proving that point. Inject it straight into my veins. I can’t get enough.