Trying really, really hard to like the playoffs
Here’s an analogy: The playoffs are to the regular season as a shootout is to a regulation game. I don’t just say that to irritate old-school fans (well, maybe a little bit), but because there’s some validity to the comparison. The two events both exist because people want to see someone win. It is perfectly conceivable that the regular season could simply be it, all that there is of hockey in the NHL, the ‘winner’ being simply whoever ends with the best record. Maybe some seasons two or more teams would end with the same record, in which case, there’d be a tie. That would be fair. But it would also be totally unsatisfying- maybe once upon a time hockey fans could deal with a tie game every now and then, in the interests of fairness, but at the end of the season, you want to see someone win, and not just win in an abstract, statistical way, but actually win everything in a single game.
Like a shootout, the playoffs are a very different challenge than the preceding events. Success in the regular season is usually based on either structure or phenomenal natural talent, but neither is a guarantor of playoff achievement. Hockey, apparently, becomes a very different game in the postseason. Not necessarily a better game, because the increased importance of every match seems to be generally counterbalanced by increased conservatism in play-style- I mean, let’s not let it get too exciting. Some things that are trivial on the scale of the normal season can have massive significance in the playoffs. A normally marginal 4th liner goes on a quirky scoring run in November, it’s a curiosity, but in the playoffs it suddenly becomes absolutely the most amazing thing in the entire universe, freakin’ manna from heaven. A center with a weakfish faceoff percentage is just ‘something to work on’ for most of the year, in the playoffs, it’s a catastrophe, worthy of benching and possibly decapitation. Conversely, things that are terrifically useful in normal hockey suddenly become less useful in playoff hockey- a high-scoring but streaky forward is a great investment over 82 games, less so when there are only 4.
Even in a fairly predictable playoff season, such as this one, wherein everyone who is Supposed To Win does, the differences from regular season play are readily apparent. The rules are the same (mostly), but the things that decide a game are different. Compared to the regular season, playoff games are won and lost on teeny, tiny things. Every now and then there’s a real disastrous blowout where you can point to a solid, obvious hockey-reason for the outcome- say, terrible goaltending or bad defensive coverage. But this time of year, everybody is playing tighter, more careful, more aware than usual, and most games really could go either way. Too often it’s one very small moment that makes the difference- one lucky bounce, one bad turnover, one half-second of distraction. It can be painfully boring and tremendously exciting at the same time, since there are huge stretches of time watching two teams waltz in the neutral zone, trying to out-trap each other, but then suddenly there’s one dazzling, freakish play that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen and turns out to win the game. Not being a particular partisan of any of the teams playing, there’ve been a lot of games I wanted to turn off, thinking to myself, wow, this is some slow hockey (thankfully, less so now in the Conference Finals), but it’s unexpectedly hard to change the channel, because if something cool happens, it will be both really cool and really important.
The playoffs are a sentimental time of year, not just because of the Annual Analyst Hyperbole Competition (‘BEST SERIES EVER!’), but because- in the face of all the pressure, all the weight of good or bad luck, all the impossibility of knowing the outcome- feelings become more important. Most of the year, most fans couldn’t care less what their team or anybody on it is feeling, unless they’re throwing some sort of public hissy fit. But come playoff time? Oh, man, everyone in the hockey world temporarily takes off the amateur GM hats and puts on their amateur sports psychologist hats. We’re tremendously interested in emotional states- anger, stress, fear, hate, desire, determination. Playoff coverage is one step removed from Oprah, with a macho veneer, because winning in the playoffs isn’t so much about what assets you have as a team in terms of talent, but about how players psychologically react to really high-stakes hockey. ‘Choking’ is just a code-word for a mental breakdown, a team that plays too laconically, carelessly, angrily, or whatever to win, even though they have everything they need. No one ‘chokes’ in the regular season, because in the regular season you can be the most psychologically fucked team in the universe and still do pretty well. But without a solid balance of passion and restraint, anger and joy, optimism and pragmatism, your boys are definitely watching the Final from the comfort of their La-Z-Boys.
People will tell you that the playoffs are the time of winning, the part of the season that makes winners. Bullshit. This, jaananam, is the season of losing, and losing big. This is the time when nearly everybody really, truly loses. In the cruel days of April more hockey fans see their hopes and dreams unceremoniously squished than at any other time of the year, and May isn’t far behind.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from observing the playoffs from this perspective, it’s that every team seems different while they’re still playing, but after they’ve lost the big loss, they all become very similar. Every fan community reacts the same way, and I am comforted to know that Habistanis have by no means conquered the market on treating their team with brutal, crazed insanity in the face of an unsuccessful season. When a team has just been eliminated, there are no good fans, there is no charity, no patience, no ‘aww, that’s too bad, maybe things will be better next season.’ No, in the immediate aftermath of real losing, every fan base from
The tragic thing about this part of the year is that the losing is built into it. Twenty-nine teams and all their acolytes have to lose, no matter what, and that means that a lot of those fans are freaking out over absolutely nothing. Remember the shootout analogy? If your team never sees a shootout because they’re always losing in regulation, you got problems. If your team can’t seem to get a single goal ever in a shootout, you got problems. And if your team is good enough to get to shootouts and score, but still never actually walks away with that extra point, then maybe you got problems too. But losing one shootout? Hell, losing 3 shootouts? It means nothing. Of the 29 teams that will be going home sad this year, several of them were perfectly capable of winning with exactly the team they had. Different games, different bounces, different injuries, all-around better mojo, and they could have won it. Going back to the drawing board and redesigning the entire team to try to cover for the reasons you lost to the 2006-2007 Ducks, for example, won’t get you a freakin’ thing next year, because you never gonna play the 2006-2007 Ducks again, and next year you could just as easily get your ass beat for totally different reasons by the 2007-2008 Sharks. The final series could be between the Red Wings and a team of perfect Red Wings-clones, one of them would still lose, for a thousand tiny reasons that are well beyond anyone’s knowledge or foresight. That’s what makes it terrible, that’s what makes it wonderful: there ain’t no planning, designing, structuring for sure-fire playoff success- do what you must to get there, and see what happens.
So cheer up, all y’all distraught losers, wipe away your tears, hug your goalie (in spirit- no stalking) (or your backup goalie, if your goalie is the reason you lost) (or failing that, your best defenseman). In spite of all the pain, the playoffs are a beautiful thing, and maybe really are the best time of the hockey season, because the playoffs are a perfect convergence. The playoffs bring us all together. Through most of the year, there’s just more hockey out there than anyone can fully follow. The games are mutually exclusive; no one can watch all of them. Even professional analysts specialize, covering certain teams and certain spots more thoroughly than others. The landscape is lush but unnavigably vast, there’s so much going on that it’s impossible to understand it all, even to know everything. Most of the year hockey in places like
But over the course of the playoffs, as teams are eliminated and there’s less and less to watch, hockey becomes not impoverished but somehow deeper, all the richer for it’s increasing narrowness. In the beginning all we fans were all watching different things, but now our gazes are all drawn inexorably to the same points, the same places. Teams I have known all season- Ottawa and Buffalo being near relations of my own Habs- seem newer and more freshly complex than when they were just ‘our opponents’, suddenly the Ducks are a much more fascinating entity than the pale echoes of Pronger and Niedermayer that occasionally made the news here back in December, February. For the first time all year, I understand pretty much everything I hear/read about hockey. Where once there were thirty stories playing out simultaneously, now there are only four, soon there will be only two, and then ultimately just one, one story for this entire season, one team who (love ‘em or hate ‘em) will be the team for this season. When those final games come, no matter where our regular-season loyalties lie, every hockey fan on this continent will be in the same moment, one big conversation for a thousand different opinions.
And even with the ache of losing still fresh on so many of us, it’s a sweet event, this convergence. It’s the time of year when you get to be just a hockey fan, if you want to be, whatever your natural allegiances. The sport is so much more than all its many pieces, and whoever ends up cuddling with the Big Shiny at that very last moment of the season, even if it’s someone you never liked or even particularly followed, you will be watching. And be you Habistani or Kingsian, be you thrilled or irate or depressed about the outcome, you will care. Maybe not the way you care for your own team, but the way you care for the game and all the things that go into it.
The season will eventually fully end and we’ll all be enveloped in our own concerns again, various local problems of greater or lesser urgency. But we’ll also all remember the One Story and the One Moment that defined this past season, the way all hockey fans remember the final moments of every season they’ve ever followed, even the unfulfilling ones. We all dissipate, and then same time next year, we’ll all converge again, we’ll all be pulled into one moment by the very nature of the playoffs. It’s the life-cycle of the hockey world. It’s a beautiful thing.