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

Capitals

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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