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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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Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s semifinal matchup:

Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

2018-19 stats

Joonas Donskoi (27 years old): 80 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 14 goals, 23 assists, 37 points, 13:25 TOI

Playoffs: 12 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 12:26 TOI

Carl Gunnarsson (32 years old): 25 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points, 15:15 TOI

Playoffs: 19 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 14:57 TOI, won Stanley Cup

Hockey-Graph contract projections 

Joonas Donskoi: 3 years, $2,847,521 cap hit

Carl Gunnarsson: 1 year, $731,159 cap hit

The case for Joonas Donskoi

Maybe Andre Burakovsky’s qualifying offer of $3.25 million means he’s back with the Capitals for another year. But it doesn’t preclude a trade and in Donskoi you’d have a similar option at a cheaper price, which matters if you only have $9.2 million in cap space left for now.

Donskoi made the offense better in San Jose in whatever role he was asked to play. He can go up and down the lineup and had a consistency to his game that Burakovsky at times lacks. Donskoi’s stats may not always reflect that, but making his teammates around him better is a valuable asset. Either way, depth scoring is important and a priority for the Capitals. 

Donskoi has every bit the Stanley Cup playoff experience as Burakovsky does if that matters to you. Donskoi has nine goals and 12 assists in 50 playoff games and Burakovsky has nine goals and nine assists in 56 playoff games. Not much to chose between the team except Donskoi would be cheaper if Washington decided to trade Burakovsky. 

The case for Carl Gunnarsson

The Caps will need a No. 6/7 defenseman after Brooks Orpik retired on Tuesday. Yes, they gave a qualifying offer to RFA defenseman Christian Djoos and they have Jonas Siegenthaler under contract, too. Both are natural left side defensemen. Going with the kids is an option. But both of them? That becomes problematic when someone gets hurt in your top two pairings and players have to bump up. 

Gunnarsson was the hero of the “Boston Pee Party” when he scored the overtime winner in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final after declaring to head coach Craig Berube at the urinal he just needed one more opportunity. Gunnarsson had just seven points in the regular season so no one should expect a ton of offense, but the point is he delivered when it mattered most.

When he is not playing the overtime hero, he is a third-pairing, stay at home defenseman who can play on the penalty kill which is pretty much exactly what the Caps need in a depth defenseman.

Take a look at Gunnarsson’s contract projection. You can’t beat that price. Sure, those projections came out before he won the Stanley Cup, but even if his price goes up, it will not be significant. You’re tinkering at the margins of the roster here and championship experience matters. 

Who’s your pick? Vote here:


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Burakovsky receives qualifying offer from Capitals

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Burakovsky receives qualifying offer from Capitals

The Capitals tendered qualifying offers to six of their seven restricted free agents at Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline, including forward Andre Burakovsky. 

Burakovsky, 24, had been the subject of trade rumors up until the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 25 and also in the days leading up to last week’s NHL Draft in Vancouver. Nothing came of them. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan made it clear that while teams were calling, he wasn’t about to just give away a 2013 first-round draft pick. 

“We like the player. There's been some inconsistencies there, but when he's on his game, he's a good player,” MacLellan said last Thursday. “We'd like to keep him around but obviously his name is out there a little bit, so we do talk to some teams about him. But we're not going to move him unless we get something we're comfortable with back.”

But the Capitals are still in a salary cap crunch and that could still land Burakovsky elsewhere in the coming days. His qualifying offer is $3.25 million. Washington is only $9.235 million below the salary cap of $81.5 million. If Burakovsky signs, he would provide scoring depth. He has a career-high 17 goals and has scored 12 each of the past two seasons.

The Capitals do need to see more from Burakovsky. He has struggled with confidence and consistent production over the years. But if he returns, he would be a good option to replace the expected-to-depart Brett Connolly at right wing on the third line with Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin. Connolly is an unrestricted free agent and likely out of Washington’s price range. 

By tendering a qualifying offer, the Capitals ensure that they will keep Burakovsky’s rights. If they had not then he’d be an unrestricted free agent able to sign with any team. That’s not a smart use of an asset that could still help in 2019-20. They could, of course, still trade him at any time. 

Meanwhile, forward Dmitry Jaskin was not tendered a qualifying offer. He is a free agent now. Jaskin never gained the trust of the coaching staff last season. He appeared in just 37 games despite analytics that showed he had a positive impact on the fourth line. Jaskin picked up on waivers from the St. Louis Blues in October, had two goals and four assists. He did not play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Winger Jakub Vrana also received a qualifying offer, but that’s not expected to matter much as the two sides try to put together a long-term contract extension after his breakthrough 24-goal season in his second NHL year. 

The Capitals did tender a qualifying offer to defenseman Christian Djoos. An ugly thigh injury that turned into compartment syndrome and limited him to 45 games. But with Brooks Orpik retiring on Tuesday, Washington could go with Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler as their No. 6/7 defensemen on their natural left sides. 

Fourth-line winger Chandler Stephenson also received his qualifying offer. AHL Hershey forward Colby Williams and goalie Vitek Vanacek also received qualifying offers from Washington.