The best thing about the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that surprises abound in all corners, and everyone involved seems to like that fact. The best thing about the NBA Playoffs is that surprises die swiftly and remorselessly, and everyone involved seems to like that just as much.
The NHL playoffs through 60 games have been about three things: much heralded teams croaking in the woods while weird ones that finished downstate in the regular season are thriving; hot goalies including one in Uniondale with two heads; and overtime games that end almost before they begin. The NBA playoffs through 50 games have also been about three things: the higher seed almost always winning; games turning into routs before halftime; and people floundering about for things to talk about that don’t include the sentence fragment “LeBron James.”
The NHL will advance either its one- or two-seed (based on regular-season points) into the semifinals, plus its eighth, 12th and 16th ranked teams. Part of this is the weird format, but Montreal and the New York Islanders are still there no matter how hard you squint. The NBA’s eight first-round survivors are the two one-seeds, the two two-seeds, the two three-seeds, an overmatched four-seed and a seemingly overmatched five-seed. In the NHL, anything can happen. In the NBA, the usual thing usually happens.
None of this is news to people who pay attention to this sort of thing for pleasure or for money, but it is particularly pronounced this year. The higher hoops seed in any matchup is 35-15, but more telling, 31 of the 50 games have been decided by double digits and the average margin of victory is nearly 14 points. In short, you don’t watch the NBA Playoffs for the drama, you watch it for the individuals. In the NHL, you watch to see how quickly the individuals can fail (see: Leafs, Toronto Maple) and how many games can extract extra time (22 so far, although nearly half of those lasted under five minutes, for all the good that’ll get you).
All this stereotyping came home again last night, when the improbably probable Islanders advanced to the semifinals by thumping the Boston Bruins while the Phoenix Suns slapped around any Denver Nugget not named Nikola Jokic for the second game running and convinced Denver coach Michael Malone that his team “quit,” an odd response this late in a season. The talk about how the last eight teams in the NBA playoffs have so few championships does not hide the fact that the top seeds are still doing what top seeds have historically done, which is win, with the best players being the best players—while the NHL is just a barely organized piefight in which nearly any strategy that works will prevail until it stops working two days later.
The Islanders beat top-seeded Pittsburgh with Ilya Sorokin in goal and then head coach Barry Trotz dumped him after a bad first game in the Boston series for Semyon Varlamov and advanced anyway. The Isles’ best defense pair are Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, which you can’t make up, and the best player in the Boston series was the magnificently named third-line center Jean-Gabriel Pageau. And Montreal is essentially Carey Price and 18 certified pains in the ass led by antiquarian Corey Perry. They so wrecked their nation’s love/hate object the Toronto Perpetually Crushing Disappointments that the CN Tower in Toronto is lit up in Canadiens colors to the consternation of blue-veined locals who still think it’s 1967. They since have made the big and slow Winnipeg Jets look half as big and twice as slow, and now get the winner of that traditional rivalry Colorado-Vegas.
In short, even when the NBA is promising something new, it’s giving you the old and familiar, just with different names. And the NHL is giving you the unexpected, which is itself expected. We are still about midway through the process, but whether or not you’re getting what you want, you’re getting what you’re used to, which is Marketing 101 whether you know it or not.