We have discussed it before, and this year’s edition of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is only proving the point beyond contention: The National Hockey League is the last pure bastion of integrity in North American professional sports, and that makes it the best one for the hardcore, traditionalist sports fan, too.
Check out the first round of the league’s postseason tournament: Of the five series already finished, four of them went to the lower-seeded team—including both the top seeds in each conference, for the first time in NHL history.
Yeah, when it comes to playoff hockey, the fix is not in. We know the NHL is the most progressive of the aforementioned pro sports leagues, but even we did not think this was possible (clearly, as our predictions for the first round have been shredded).
Tonight, there are two Game 7s, and if Toronto and/or Vegas manage to win on the road, the low-seed parade will continue. Tomorrow night, Carolina has a chance to follow suit as well.
Think about it: Seven of the eight playoff series in the first round either went to seven games or the “lesser” team won the series. Only the New York Islanders managed to avoid an upset so far in the first round, and they had to sweep the 2016-2017 champs to do it—no easy task.
This is why we love the NHL: Anything goes … the way it should be. Major League Baseball, and to a much greater extent the National Basketball Association and the National Football League, take notice!
MLB postseasons are notorious for being a crapshoot, but that has more to do with the stupid formats of playoff series. Pro baseball plays a 162-game regular season yet gifts the better team just one extra home game in the postseason, and in the first round, it’s just a five-game series. That is insane.
In recent years, the last time a team not among the five best in the sport won the World Series was in 2014, when the San Francisco Giants—the tenth-best team, according to these metrics—managed to win a seven-game series over the ninth-best team, the Kansas City Royals.
The Giants also pulled off a greater feat in 2012, when they were the 13th-best team in MLB and somehow still managed to win the Series. The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals were the tenth-best team in the regular season as they won the World Series, and the Giants—again—were the sixth-best squad in 2010 on their way to a title.
So this decade alone, the MLB champs have been somewhat unlikely, although the last handful of years have seen a sense of order in the baseball playoffs. Looking at the NBA and the NFL, it gets more unlikely that a random team emerges to win it all.
You have to go back to 2011 to find an NBA champion that wasn’t one of the top two seeds in its conference before winning the title, and the Dallas Mavericks still had the second-best record in the Western Conference despite being the third seed. Beyond that, it was 2007 when the San Antonio Spurs won it all from the three-seed slot in the West, too, although that was the team’s third title in five seasons—hardly an upset, really.
The 2004 Detroit Pistons were the third seed in the Eastern Conference when they won it all, but the point is clear. If these are the outlier “upsets” of the NBA playoffs, there are not a lot of upsets.
As for the NFL, the 2012 season was the last time a team not seeded in the top two of its conference won the Super Bowl: That was when the Ravens pulled off a miracle by winning three games in a row against top-two seeds in the playoffs to win it all. That completed a three-year stretch where unlikely champs were crowned: The 2011 New York Giants were a four seed, and the 2010 Green Bay Packers were a six seed.
No surprise it has not happened since then, though.
You will notice that MLB, the NBA, and the NFL are all on nice little streaks of at least half a decade where the champs were somewhat expected. The NHL won’t be joining that list this year, although even the Washington Capitals were just the 13th-best regular-season team last year when they won the Stanley Cup—although the Caps were the best team in 2016 and 2017, when their division rivals from Pittsburgh won the Cup.
(By the way, both times the Penguins ranked in the top four for regular-season ratings.)
In 2014, the Los Angeles Kings were the eighth-best regular season team before winning the Cup, and in 2012, the Kings did it even better: They were the 11th-best team and won it all as the eight seed in the Western Conference. Hot goaltending can do that for you in hockey, of course.
Baseball and hockey have shown those sports’ postseasons to be the most unpredictable, overall, but even baseball has gotten somewhat predictable in the last handful of seasons.
Not so for hockey, and why bother even watching if the outcome is not in doubt? Never fear … that’s why the NHL is here.