I love the playoffs.

The Detroit Red Wings played a tense first game of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs in Boston on April 18 against the heavily favored Bruins. Despite the fact that neither team had been able to dent the scoreboard, I spent the first 57 minutes of the contest absolutely convinced that Detroit was going to lose. Then this happened. And the improbable suddenly seemed realistically within reach.

Little more than a week later, the Red Wings were eliminated after dropping their next four games in succession, in mostly convincing fashion. Season over.

I hate the playoffs.

At least, I suppose, the better team won, which is the way things are theoretically supposed to work. I say theoretically because the playoff system used in North American professional team sports is about the worst way I can imagine to determine a league championship.

European sports don’t have playoffs, at least not in the way we in the U.S. and Canada would understand the term. Over there, it’s the season championship that matters. For example, in England’s Premier League, each team plays every other team exactly twice—a perfectly balanced schedule—and the champion is the team with the best record over the whole season. Logical, fair, simple.

But over here, it’s chaos. “Winning” the regular season means nothing to anyone, even though winning the regular season is, really, the more impressive accomplishment. Teams compete for months (82 games in hockey and basketball; 162 in baseball) against a mixed slate of opponents, playing through times of injury and good health, slumps and streaks, lucky bounces and bad breaks. Although the good and bad luck won’t completely even out in the end, standing at the top of the standings at the end of a long season is an undeniable mark of sustained excellence. Although the NHL standings in particular have gotten flukier in recent years thanks to the abominable shootout and a nonsensical points system, one can be reasonably sure that the top regular season team is at least a deserving contender for the title of league’s best team.

But aside from seeding, regular season success is meaningless come playoff time, where instead of getting 82 games to sort out the wheat from the chaff, you get (if you’re lucky) 4 tiny chunks of at most 7 measly games each. Bad matchup against a team that isn’t as good as your team overall, but happens to have a few key strengths that just so happen to prey on your few key weaknesses? Sorry, tough luck. Run into a hot goalie? Too bad, maybe next year. Dominate on both ends of the ice for two straight games, only to lose both thanks to one blown call, one puck that goes in after a harmless shot takes a crazy bounce off a defenseman’s knee, and another one finds an impossibly small hole through a mess of players? Thanks for playing; see you in September.

Sure, the best team still has an advantage. Boston made distressingly quick work of Detroit, after all, and should have a pretty good chance to make it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. No team in the Eastern Conference is really close to their level.

But it’s far from a guarantee. While last season the consensus pick for the NHL’s best team (Chicago) came out on top in both regular and post-season play, the regular season champion has bombed out of the playoffs in the very first round in three of the last seven seasons.

This can be, frankly, maddening. Billy Beane, general manager of MLB’s Oakland Athletics and one of the best at his craft in professional sports, infamously remarked in Moneyball, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.” Essentially, the point is this: all you can do is assemble the best team you possibly can, and hope for the best. Even if you do that, over a 7-game series the outcome is still about 30 to 40 percent luck. The best team doesn’t always win. In fact, in a 16-team playoff field, the best team usually doesn’t.

And yet.

The intensity. The pressure. The animosity that builds from playing the same opponent over and over. The drama of knowing that an entire season can hinge on the next shift. There’s really nothing like the playoffs. And if you make it in, there’s always a chance. Sure, it might be a fluke run, but if it’s your team making the fluke run, do you care that it’s a fluke? No, you do not.

My team, of course, did not make a fluke run this year. They got steamrolled by a significantly stronger opponent. But when Pavel Datsyuk delivered game 1 to the underdogs, in a sport that probably produces more underdog winners than any other …

I believed. In the past two decades, the Red Wings have been on the receiving end of an ugly playoff upset on multiple occasions. Why shouldn’t they be the victorious underdog for once?

It didn’t work out that way. But there’s always next season. Or more specifically, next postseason. Because while the Red Wings will not be anywhere near the NHL’s best team next season, in the playoffs anything can happen. For better or worse.

1 Comment

  1. Bart

    I agree with you.


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