The NHL Playoffs: Love to Hate Them

It’s the month you love to hate.

No, but seriously.

The NHL Playoffs are a great, great time of year, and a whole lot of fun. The problem with them, of course, if that your favorite team can’t always win. And what determines what causes your team to win is an inexact science at best, an amalgamation of talent, momentum and seemingly chance.

During the regular season, the ebbs and flows of a season are remembered within that time span, but ultimately probably not recalled after the season is over. A seven-game stretch in January is no more memorable than any seven-game stretch in November, and probably just as memorable as a seven-game stretch in March, even when games are noted more for their importance. But nothing at all compares to the importance put on seven-game stretches in April and beyond, as those septuplets of games are etched in the memories of fans for seemingly years to come.

During the season, small sample sizes are thrown out with yesterday’s trash — as they should be — and anyone caught citing any kind of statistic in earnest and drawing meaningful conclusions would be given the world’s longest eye roll. Saying that Devan Dubnyk is an incredible goalie because of a seven-game stretch in December would be equally as ridiculous as saying he’s an awful goalie because of a seven-game stretch in March. The answer, of course, more likely lies in the middle, which is exactly why you can’t cite samples that small.

So what can we make of the teeny tiny sample sizes that the playoffs give us? Surely. There’s got to be some kind of takeaway from the statistics gathered in the playoffs each year, right?

Well, I don’t really think so.

Judging this Wild team based upon four games in April seems as cruel as cruel as judging the entirety of this team on six games in April last season, when they didn’t really play well until it was too late in the playoff series against Dallas (sounds familiar, right?). In between those two disappointing playoff series, the Wild managed the best season in franchise history, and reeled off 12 wins in a row in December to boot. Were the Wild ever as bad as their recent playoff showings indicate? No, not really, but it’s the playoff success — or lack thereof — that sticks with the fans.

So far in this series, Jake Allen has a save percentage of .966 and because of that, the Wild have mustered a whopping 1.25 goals per game, a far cry from their regular season average of 3.21. Normally the Wild shooting 2.5 percent in four games wouldn’t cause alarm in the regular season, but as we’ve established, this isn’t the regular season anymore. The scope and magnitude are so much higher, that we’re required as fans to put all of our focus on the playoffs, and declare that statistics in the playoffs are now, suddenly the only statistics that matter. It’s an awfully backward concept, but given the American obsession with win or go home tournaments, and judging teams solely on their outcome, I suppose we’ve asked for it.

Look at the Blackhawks, for instance. No doubt, they were a flawed team, to an extent, and there’s probably some good arguments as to why they were swept in four games by Nashville. But ultimately, Pekka Rinne was the reason. His .976 Save Percentage is the only one that bests Jake Allen’s in the postseason, and he no doubt carried that series. Does this make the Blackhawks, 2015 Stanley Cup Champions, ousted in the first round two years straight, any less of a talented team than they were during the regular season? Also, consider for a moment that Alexander Ovechkin has never played in a Stanley Cup Final. Arguably the greatest player of this generation, and when you adjust for era, the most prolific scorer ever, on President Cup winning teams, still can’t win more than 12 playoff games in one season.

It’s an awfully backward concept, but given the American obsession with win or go home tournaments, and judging teams solely on their outcome, I suppose we’ve asked for it.

But that’s all of the fun, right? It adds to the drama, it adds to the unpredictability. Watching a postseason where the higher seed wins every round, and Davids never slay Goliaths wouldn’t be very exciting to say the least. It’s this reliance on the drama that relatively short playoff series (‘short’ not taking into consideration the TV schedules, of course) that drives our desire to watch tournaments such as this. As fans, you may hate to see good teams play bad series, and love to see bad teams play good series, but that’s the magic of the playoffs, that’s the allure, that’s the catch.

Simply put, the playoffs are stupid. Stupidly exhilarating, stupidly dramatic, and stupidly unpredictable. Deriving a champion from a chain of teeny tiny small sample sizes isn’t fair to the teams, it isn’t fair to the fans, but it’s a boatload of fun to watch. It’s a glorious time of year that blows your mind and breaks your heart, where small sample sizes reign supreme and you can only live in the now. Take it for what it is, and enjoy it.

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