While I've never been able to wrap my head around intense playoff action in mid-May, if you're into the NHL playoffs, this is certainly your time of year.
As we speak, Penguins fans have visions of parade routes dancing in their heads, as their favorite team takes on the Ottawa Senators in the second round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Any die-hard fan will insist that playoff hockey is the most exciting, and the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in all of team sports. In order for a player to sip champagne out of Lord Stanley's hallowed cup, his team must survive four best of seven series--given the physical nature of hockey, this obviously isn't easy.
Is the Stanley Cup the hardest trophy in team sports to capture? That's debatable, but as a casual fan, I do enjoy going along for the ride each spring and watching my more die-hard friends endure the emotional ups and downs that each series produces.
Pittsburgh, the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, advanced to the second round after surviving an unexpected dog-fight with an eighth seeded Islanders team that finished 17 points back in the standings during the regular season. Pens fans were in a bit of a panic as that first round match-up unfolded and exposed their team as a somewhat flawed defensive unit that couldn't handle New York's speed. Even goaltender Marc Andre Fleury lost his starting job (at least, for now) to back-up Tomas Vokoun, who started Games 5 and 6 and helped lead Pittsburgh to a series victory.
While that first round match-up was a struggle, at least Pittsburgh had a mulligan or three to address the many problems that the Islanders presented. And at the end of the day, that's what separates the NHL playoffs (or the NBA and MLB postseasons, for that matter) from the NFL postseason.
In January of 2012, when Tim Tebow was having his career day against the Steelers' somewhat shocked and clueless secondary in the wildcard playoffs, there were no mulligans, and there were no tomorrows. When Demaryius Thomas took Tebow's overtime pass and raced 80 yards for the winning score, many Steelers fans headed for the metaphorical bridge because they realized the season was over and the dreams of a second straight trip to the Super Bowl had just been dashed.
A week ago, when many Penguins fans were on that same metaphorical bridge after their team lost Game 4 in New York's Nassau Coliseum, and the series was TIED at two games a-piece, at least they could easily be talked down with the promise of another day and another game.
There are no second chances in the NFL playoffs, and this is why I find January so fascinating. For my money, the best part of sitting down to watch an NFL postseason game is knowing that, in three hours, you're either going to be experiencing the highest of highs or the lowest of lows--there really is no in-between if you're emotionally invested in your favorite football team.
For all the talk, analysis and speculation in the week leading up to the game, a football team's playoff life depends on what happens over the course of a few hours. If the game-plan is executed properly, the coaches win their chess matches and the players win their physical match-ups, that team's fans can rejoice and look ahead to the next battle. But if things don't go according to plan, it all comes crashing down, the season is over, and fans are left wondering how their team could have lost to the 8-8 Broncos.
If the Steelers played Denver seven times, they probably would have won fourgames, but that's obviously not how the NFL postseason works.
And that brings me to parity.
While the most recent Super Bowl Champions have certainly offered up tangible evidence to support NFL parity (six of the past eight champions started their postseason journey in the wildcard round), there is no parity like that of NHL parity.
A season ago, the Los Angeles Kings, the eighth seed in the Western Conference, not only won the Stanley Cup, they cut through the playoff field like the proverbial hot knife through butter, only needing 20 of a possible 28 games to claim their throne.
Three seasons ago, the Philadelphia Flyers, the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals after defeating the Montreal Canadiens, the eighth seed--picture the 5th seed playing the 6th seed for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
Hockey purists will tell you that you can just throw the seeds out the window come playoff time. And the eight teams remaining in the 2013 field are proof of that. The fifth, sixth and seventh seeds are still alive in the Western Conference, while the sixth and seventh seeds both advanced to the second round in the East.
As I said earlier, many recent Lombardi winners were wildcard teams, but in the NFL, the difference between a sixth seed and a top seed is often just a game or two in the standings (sometimes, only a tiebreaker).
Postseason parity after a 16 game regular season is one thing, but after an 82 game season? If I'm an NHL season-ticket holder, I'm not so sure how pleased I'd be after spending thousands of dollars on season (and playoff) tickets just to see my favorite team choke away its top seed to an eighth place team that finished 20 points back in the standings.
And I believe this is where the NFL gets it right. Twelve of the 32 NFL teams make the playoffs, and this requires first round byes for the top two seeds in the AFC and NFC. In the NHL (or any league with "best of" postseason formats), the only reward for earning a top seed is one extra home game in a best of five or seven series.
In conclusion, while the NHL postseason might be intense and exciting, the NFL format is the best in all of professional sports.
The emotional highs and lows are confined to a few hours, and "tomorrow" doesn't exist.