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Why are the Stanley Cup Playoffs so much different than the regular season?

Why are the Stanley Cup Playoffs so much different than the regular season?

The boos rained down in Amalie Arena as the final seconds ticked off the clock on Wednesday. The Columbus Blue Jackets rushed to mob goalie Sergei Bobrovsky after a stunning Game 1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning just completed one of the most dominant regular seasons of all-time, tying the record for most wins in a season with 62. And yet, a team that had seemed almost unbeatable just a few days ago could not even win its first game of the postseason.

It may be one game, but Wednesday’s result served as an early reminder that when it comes to hockey, the regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs are two completely different games.

But why?

“It's a hard question to answer, but I feel like it's just a different game in the playoffs,” Nicklas Backstrom said.

In 2018, the Golden State Warriors extended their dynasty with their third title in four years after sweeping the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. The Boston Red Sox claimed the World Series in 2018 to the surprise of no one after a dominant regular season that saw the Red Sox earn the best record in baseball. It took them just five games to win their fourth World Series title in 15 years. The New England Patriots were crowned Super Bowl Champions in February for the third time in five years, giving Tom Brady the sixth championship of his career.

What do all of these championships have in common? They were all so predictable.

But it never seems to be that way in hockey. The unexpected always seems to happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as there appears to be very little carryover between the regular season and the playoffs.

No sport is without its upsets, but hockey takes it to the extreme. The team with the best record in the regular season has reached the Stanley Cup Final only twice in the last 10 years and only one team, the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks, managed to win. In the 33 seasons the Presidents’ Trophy has been awarded to the team with the best record, only eight of those teams have won the Cup.

Why is there so little carryover between one season and the next?

Hockey by its nature can be a random sport, but that is far too simplistic an explanation. Like every sport, there a few subtle differences between the regular season and the playoffs. While the rules are largely the same, the way in which they enforced are not.

“The game's called a little bit different,” Braden Holtby said. “They let a little bit more go which creates a harder style, which is awesome. It's, in my opinion, the way it should be.”

With fewer penalties getting called, physical teams may find it easier to impose their will on opponents. It can also be easier to slow down speedy teams as you are less likely to take a stick penalty while defending against a fast offense.

Suddenly a strong power play may not be quite as pronounced an advantage while a weak penalty kill may not be as big of a weakness.

There is also a big difference when it comes to preparation.

In the regular season, one team is playing against 30 opponents. Teams will get scouting reports on each opponent and coaches and players will prepare as best they can, but you are limited in what you can do and how much you can prepare when you play two different opponents in as many nights.

In the playoffs, however, you have one opponent. One opponent to scout, gameplan for and adjust to. With a few days between series, there is plenty of time to watch video, break down tendencies and learn everything there is to know about an opponent before playing them for the next four to seven games.

“The teams scout each other to death so it comes out to just who wants it more because teams know each other's tendencies and systems and plays and everything,” Lars Eller said. “It comes down to effort level, battle level, one-on-ones and who can make less mistakes a lot of times.”

In the NFL, this is the norm and it does not change from the regular season to the playoffs. Baseball is also a sport built around series so teams get used to playing each other for several days at a time."

Basketball, however, is similar to hockey in that teams have to transition from playing a different opponent every other night to playing a single opponent for a seven-game series. So why do we see so many more upsets in hockey?

Because the nature of the game of hockey changes dramatically in the playoffs.

When you watch a regular season game and a playoff game in the NBA, you can notice the difference…after a while. There is more intensity, the quality of play rises, but the game and how it is played does not fundamentally quite like it does in hockey.

“Can't go through an 82-game schedule playing the same level of physicality and commitment, blocking shots, that type of thing,” Holtby said.

An 82-game season is a grind and in a sport as physical as hockey, no one is able to give 100-percent every night. Blocking shots is hard for a player to do for 82 games. Hitting is hard for a player to do for 82 games. Planting yourself in front of a goalie for a screen is hard to do for 82 games.

Taking abuse from a defense while standing in the slot is hard to do for 82 games. Winning board battles is hard to do for 82 games.

Those, however, are all essential parts of a team’s success in the playoffs.

While a coach may find it hard to get that type of commitment out of all of his players every night, that changes when the playoffs come.

“I don't care if you're my age or 22, it's a level that you can't sustain over 82 games,” Brooks Orpik said. “I would never say that we're pacing ourselves, but you've got to pick your spots, especially with the physicality just because it really takes a toll on you. I think if guys played the way we did some of the playoff games, you'd be done by November. And then once you get to the playoffs, you know that the end of your season could be pretty near so you just kind of gas it out every game.”

“In the regular season you know when the last game is and you play so much that it's really hard to give an absolute 100-percent every night from a full 20 guys on each side,” T.J. Oshie said. “In playoffs, you don't know. You might be in for four games, you might be in for 28. You don't know when your last game's going to be, you don't know what play's going to determine how a series turns. You go from getting maybe five or six guys going 100-percent, everyone else kind of at 90 to 40 guys out there going full bore and it just makes for such an exciting game. I think the fans can see that every little turnover, every hit, every blocked shot means something.”

The strategy for finding success over an 82-game marathon is very different from a successful strategy for the sprint that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That leads to a very different looking game and very different looking results.

“It's just a tighter game, players are more aware of mistakes than in the regular season,” Backstrom said. “It's just a different mentality which makes it more fun and everything matters.”    

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'It's like losing a brother': The human aspect of the NHL trade deadline

'It's like losing a brother': The human aspect of the NHL trade deadline

The NHL trade deadline is always a fun time for fans. It's a time for buyers to bring in the final key pieces of a Stanley Cup roster or maybe those one or two players needed to complete a run to the playoffs. For sellers, it is time to move players away and begin looking towards the future. It's a time when everyone with any interest in hockey pours over rosters, cap hits and stats trying to determine who could fit where like pieces on a chessboard.

The feeling is much different for the players.

"It's difficult," Nick Jensen said of the trade deadline. "It's a whirlwind. Everything's going on, you're kind of comfortable at the place you're at, you have a place where you played for a while and your family's there and all of a sudden, for me, I got traded and that night I was gone and I never really looked back."

To the players, the trade deadline is not just about shuffling names from roster to roster, this is real life. A player's life can change with one phone call and the news that he now has to pack his bags for a new city and get there in a matter of days, sometimes hours.

The uncertainty of the trade deadline affects every player of every team. Obviously there are those like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom who know they are not going to be traded, but that doesn't mean friends can't be traded for or away. Whether your team is in a rebuild or a Cup contender, there's a chance the roster could look very different by 3 p.m. on Monday for any team in the NHL.

"It can be a little distracting at times for the whole team in general if you're a team that you think was going to be making some moves, but it can also especially be distracting if you're a guy that's being talked about being traded," said Jensen who was traded to the Caps in 2019 as a deadline move.

Some players find themselves to be the unwilling trade chips of a deal as general managers try to tweak their rosters. The news of a trade, however, can sometimes be a welcome relief. That certainly has been the case for most deadline pickups for Washington in recent years.

From a competitive standpoint, typically the Caps have sought reinforcements from teams that know they will not be headed to the playoffs. Players come to Washington with the hope of competing for a Stanley Cup or perhaps of being able to find a better fit and a bigger role than the one they are leaving.

"I was in really bad situation [in Chicago]," said Michal Kempny, who was a trade deadline pickup for the Caps in 2018. "Every change was good for me. I just kind of waited what's going to happen and I got traded here."

"To come here and have some big-time meaningful games coming up, and be right in the thick of the race, it's a lot of fun," the newly acquired Brenden Dillon said.

But that's on the ice. The off-ice implications are a bit more complicated.

Off the ice, players have to think about their homes, their wives or girlfriends and their kids. Off the ice, players are faced with the realities of a world that is not built around the schedule of a professional athlete.

"My wife had just finally started living with me because she was in grad school before that so it was like oh finally we get to live together," Jensen said, "And then we lived together for like five months then I get traded and like oh here we go again. Dealing with when you get traded the stuff outside of hockey can be tough like that."

Initially, players do not have to worry about much in terms of housing. They are put up in a hotel and can adjust to their new surroundings. Then they are left to trying to adjust to their new team.

"It's kind of different.," Kempny said. "New city, new organization, new teammates. It's part of our job and those things happening every year to a lot of guys."

Adjusting to a new team can be especially difficult when it is one as tight as the Caps.

While players are certainly excited to join the organization, there also comes with it a level of intimidation of walking into the locker room.

"It feels like a tight-knit family in here, and there's a reason that they've had so much success not just this year but in years past," Dillon said. "I'm just trying to be a piece to the puzzle, come in and do what I can."

"I'm coming into a team where I got traded for a guy that was here that a lot of the guys were pretty fond of so that's kind of in the back of your mind too," Jensen said. "I know the guys really liked [Madison Bowey.] I heard he was a really great guy so I know losing guys at trades can be tough in that sense because you could grow as a family here and it's like losing a brother. Going in and trying to replace that can be tough too."

Adjusting to a new team, adjusting to a new system, adjusting to a new city and doing it while also trying to figure out where you're going to live and if and when your family may move with you is a lot for anyone to handle. The trade deadline comes with the added pressure of having to adjust quickly. A player who is traded in December still has over half the season left to play. It comes with all the same challenges, but there is more time for a player to get his game in order.

At the trade deadline, however, it's crunch time. There is only about a quarter of the season left to play and suddenly all the off-ice things that most people would refer to as "life" become a distraction from the task at hand, something in which the players have to shut out.

"The approach I always took is I always try to control the things that I could control and getting traded is out of my control," Jensen said. "I just focus on each game and take the same approach that you always take whether you're being traded or not being traded. If you focus on the stuff outside of your game, it's just a distraction, it's a waste of energy and it kind of puts a toll on you a little bit.

"It's not easy. It's not easy shutting things out like that, but that's kind of the approach you've got to take."

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Capitals add to their scoring depth in trade for Ilya Kovalchuk

Capitals add to their scoring depth in trade for Ilya Kovalchuk

With the NHL trade deadline at 3 p.m., Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is not waiting until the last minute to get his business done. Washington acquired forward Ilya Kovalchuk from the Montreal Canadiens for their 2020 third-round draft pick. The move was first announced via Twitter.

As part of the deal, Montreal will retain 50-percent of Kovalchuk’s salary meaning he will bring a cap hit of only $350,000 to Washington.

Kovalchuk, who will turn 37 in April, has scored nine goals and 13 assists this season in 39 games. Thirteen of those points, however, have come in 22 games with the Canadiens. He began the season with the Los Angeles Kings, who he signed a three-year contract with in 2018. His contract was bought out by Los Angeles in December making him a free agent which is how he ended up in Montreal.

So which Kovalchuk will the Caps be getting?

Los Angeles brought in Kovalchuk expecting him to be a key piece on an offense management felt was close to competing. He never seemed to fit in with the Kings, however, and as the team plummeted in the standings, Kovalchuk very much became an odd-man-out. There won’t be as much pressure on Kovalchuk in Washington which has an established top-six, but he also will not see as big a role with the Caps as he had with the Canadiens.

Kovalchuk was playing 18:54 per game for Montreal, up from 15:25 in Los Angeles. Kovalchuk likely will get far less playing time in Washington and will likely slide into a third-line role as the team has not had as much offensive production from that line as hoped this year. That would have the added benefit of pushing Carl Hagelin or Richard Panik to a fourth line whose offensive production has completely dried up. Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway have combined for three points since the calendar changed to 2020.

Kovalchuk’s upside is such that the team could potentially plug him into the top six at times when the offense needs a shakeup. In recent weeks when the offense had gone stale, options were limited for what head coach Todd Reirden could do because the top six is pretty much established. There is no Brett Connolly or Andre Burakovsky to carry the third line’s production or who Reirden could plug in to shake up the offense. Now a Capitals offense that already ranks third in the NHL in goals per game has more offensive depth.

“Ilya is a talented offensive player who we feel will provide us with additional depth and flexibility up front,” said MacLellan via the team’s press release. “He is a skilled forward who can make plays and contribute to our offensive game.”

In last year’s playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington got only five goals from its bottom six in seven games. The offense was even more top-heavy this season so the addition of Kovalchuk could prove vital both in the team’s hope to stay atop the Metropolitan Division in the regular season and also in the playoffs.

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