The post-upset, anti-parity thrills of the NHL playoffs
As a lifelong fan of the Boston Bruins and longtime writer on both the modern day NHL and hockey history, I have been taken aback by their statistical regular season for the ages.
There have been nights when I have combed through recondite stats to make my case that the 2022-23 Bruins could topple the likes of the vaunted 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens as having had the best season of all-time. They have the wins record, the points record, and though those Canadiens lost fewer games, their schedule was packed with relative cupcakes in a way that the Bruins' was not.
But there is a massive caveat, sport's version of the ultimate "but only if": But only if the Bruins win the Stanley Cup. Otherwise, it’s all donuts, as a coach of mine used to say—there’s nothing in the middle. I am confident, but also aware of something that didn’t used to be true about the NHL, and isn't true of any of our other major sports leagues.
And that's the idea that the NHL, come playoff time, is a post-upset league.
There aren't upsets anymore. There is only the gauntlet of teams that can beat you, no matter who you are. There are at least six squads I could see beating the Bruins, not one of which would surprise me.
This is one reason why the NHL playoffs are the most dramatic thing going in professional sports. But just because there are no upsets, doesn't mean we have parity, which is a death-knell for drama.
One team just smoked the league. Then we have other teams—New Jersey, Carolina—who had special years of their own. A fully healthy Colorado Avalanche team could revert to the behemoth form of last year's Cup-winning club.
I know what I want to happen. But I have no clue if it will. Were I a betting man and you told me my life depended on making the correct bet between the Bruins and the field, I’d probably bet the Bruins and risk falling on my sword, but that's out of fealty rather than what my head necessarily suggests.
We get upsets in the MLB, the NBA—though there's less separation these days between teams—and the NFL, where upsets probably have the most shock value. If a 9-8 team went into Arrowhead and downed the 14-3 Chiefs, you'd be doing a double-take in the morning as to whether that had been real.
A talented Leafs squad could oust the Bruins. The Rangers? Thorny match-ups. My list of teams that I'm sure don’t have a viable chance is a small one. So small that it's worth having. A larger point has been made.
If I didn't have a horse in this race, I'd still be compelled in that stress-free way of looking in on the drama of someone else's life. Get in on this stuff I want to shout, even as that shout is echoed with a refrain of May the Bruins please win.
As it is, I'll likely be downing hibiscus tea for my blood pressure, because you never know. It's like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books.
There is magic and wonder in the unknown. In life, it often frightens us, and we can miss out on that magic and wonder as a result, though we can also learn to embrace it.
That's what I'm doing with these NHL playoffs. And nothing is going to stop me, not even the fact that sports history hangs in the balance for my lifelong favorite team.