NHL Playoffs Proving Best Show in Sports Once Again After Wild Weekend to Open Stanley Cup Playoffs

NHL Playoffs Proving Best Show in Sports Once Again After Wild Weekend to Open Stanley Cup PlayoffsOne weekend.

That was all it took to end any debate that the Stanley Cup playoffs is still the best show in sports.

Forget March Madness, baseball pennant races or even the Super Bowl, where the commercials are often more memorable than the actual game. In the span of two days, eight games were played across the NHL. They produced the kind of action, intensity and drama that other sports could only dream of creating.

Want a nail-biter to keep you on the edge of your seat long into the night? This weekend had that, with the Bruins and Capitals going to double overtime before Washington squeaked out a 2-1 win. The Senators and Rangers, and Blackhawks and Coyotes each needed sudden death as well, though Chicago first had to rise from the dead with a game-tying goal with six seconds left in regulation to force overtime.

Want high-scoring, end-to-end action? The Flyers and Penguins took care of that, with Philadelphia taking an 8-4 win on Sunday to grab a commanding 3-0 lead over their rivals from across the Keystone State. This after the teams combined for 20 goals in the first two games of the series.

Or is a tight, defensive struggle with great goaltending and a chess match between coaches more to your style? The Bruins and Capitals provided that with their double-OT epic following Thursday's 1-0 overtime victory for the Bruins in the opening act.

Speaking of 1-0 wins, Jonathan Quick and the Kings have pushed the mighty Canucks to the brink of elimination with a 1-0 victory Sunday, giving Los Angeles a 3-0 series lead.

And that leads us to perhaps the greatest attraction of the NHL postseason, the pure unpredictability of it. Fans across the league may have dreamed of it, but who honestly would have ever expected the Canucks, fresh off winning the Presidents' Trophy yet again with the league's best record, being on the verge of being ousted from the playoffs without winning a single game in their series with eighth-seeded LA?

Who could have foreseen Braden Holtby having such an impact on the postseason, but the 22-year-old netminder who had never started a playoff game in the NHL has stepped in with Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth both injured and given the reigning Stanley Cup champions all they can handle with 72 saves on 74 shots through two games.

If skill and strategy isn't enough, the NHL has even brought back the hatred in this year's playoffs. It's that combination of on-ice artistry and brute physical force that makes hockey the unique sport it is. For too long, the playoffs have shied away from the mayhem that makes for so many memorable clashes in the regular season.

Not this year. In the eight games over the weekend, there were 10 full-fledged fights, a marked increase over the 0.44 fights a game averaged in the regular season. That's the way the postseason used to be when the intensity of the action led to frequent fights in the playoffs in the 1970s and 80s. In more recent years, the stakes have been too high to risk the extra penalties in fights, and knowing the momentum to be gained from the bouts, teams were often reluctant to risk letting the opposition turn the tide by engaging in scraps if they were already ahead.

But this year those concerns appear to have taken a backseat to the emotions involved in these matchups, much to the enjoyment of the fans on hand and those watching at home. It's almost as if the players, who voted 99.5 percent in favor of keeping fighting in the game in a recent Sports Illustrated poll, had finally heard enough of the lame "but if fighting is so important why is there none in the playoffs" arguments from the anti-fighting crowd and decided there was enough of that nonsense.

Even the stars are getting involved, with the likes of Shea Weber, Anze Kopitar, Claude Giroux and Sidney Crosby dropping their gloves, and in Crosby's case knocking away the odd glove when a Flyer tries to pick it up. Even Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette, who has built a skilled Flyers team far from the image of the old Broad Street Bullies, couldn't help but enjoy the spectacle.

"I thought it was great," Laviolette said when asked about Giroux fighting Crosby on Sunday. "In the end, that's really playoff hockey, isn't it? You know, couple of the best players in the world dropping the gloves and going at it."

Laviolette isn't the only one enjoying what they've seen. NBC reported its playoff rating are up 50 percent over last year, with Sunday's wild Pittsburgh-Philadelphia battle drawing a 77-percent increase over the Rangers-Capitals game shown in that time slot a year ago. North of the border, the hockey purists in Canada don't seem offended, with TSN's ratings up 56 percent. The Flyers-Penguins are the big draw there as well, averaging 1.4 million viewers a game compared to the overall playoff average of 991,000.

Some of those viewers come from within the league itself. No matter how busy they are this time of year, hockey people always make time to check out the other games around the league, and not just for scouting purposes.

"Absolutely, this is the time of year you watch everything you can, even if it means you stay up late,  because it's interesting," Bruins coach Claude Julien told reporters in Washington on Monday. "You don't just watch it for reasons of homework, but you're also a fan of this game and this is a great time of year to be watching hockey. Obviously there's a lot of intensity in some of those series. A lot of them are about rivalries and it kind of gets amped up to a point where it's borderline."

Sure, there's been some indefensible actions with nasty stickwork, elbows and even the odd head smacked into the glass in these early games, and some even odder disciplinary decisions both from the on-ice officials and the league office. But hey, every drama needs a good villain, and with the Canucks looking ready to head back to the smoldering ruins of their home, you have to admit Brendan Shanahan is playing the part perfectly.

Everything, in fact, was pretty close to perfect in that first weekend of playoff action. And to think, this is just the opening round. Imagine what the games will be like when the teams get a little closer to actually hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup.

Actually, that does bring up one shortcoming to the NHL playoffs. They will end in a couple months.

Have a question for Douglas Flynn? Send it to him via Twitter at @douglasflynn or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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