This time of year brings an entirely new audience to Nashville Predators hockey, the casual fan who may not be very familiar with the game. In the interest of public service, then, I'd like to offer up this primer as to exactly why the Stanley Cup Playoffs are the most thrilling, captivating event in professional sports.
Get ready to wear your Preds gear to work on game days, change that desktop image on your PC, and follow after the jump for 5 great things about playoff hockey...
Doing Whatever It Takes For the Team
Unlike the old days when the overwhelming majority (16 of 21) teams made the playoffs every year, it's a tougher task in today's NHL to qualify for the post-season. Once you're there, it takes four grueling, best-of-seven series filled with high-intensity, physical hockey played every other day to capture the Stanley Cup, and players will do anything and everything to make the most of that opportunity.
It's simply astounding to read about some of the injuries that guys play through in order to take their shot at playoff glory. Perhaps the standard was set by Bobby Baun back in 1964, scoring a game-winning goal on a broken leg for the Toronto Maple Leafs
That spirit is very much alive today. Take, for example, defenseman Darryl Sydor - with the Dallas Stars back in the 2000 Stanley Cup Finals against New Jersey, he injures his knee in a collision along the boards, and since play continues on, drags himself to the front of the net in a desperate attempt to help his team and block a shooting lane:
Unlike the regular season, when a shootout can decide a game after 5 minutes of overtime, the NHL playoff features unlimited, sudden-death overtime. If the game is tied after regulation time, they simply take a break to clean the ice, put 20:00 up on the clock, and go at it until someone scores. If they're still tied, just rinse and repeat.
The Predators have yet to score an overtime game-winning goal in the playoffs, but you can bet that the first guy to do so will forever earn his place in the hearts of Nashville fans.
The great thing about playoff overtime is that since the TV timeouts have already been taken, the pace of the game picks up considerably, and each dash up and down the ice brings with it danger or opportunity. When a puck finally goes in, the entire momentum of a playoff series, and a season, turns in an instant. Ask any hardcore hockey fan about memorable playoff moments, and OT winners come rolling off the tongue - Petr Klima in 1990, Steve Yzerman in 1996, and of course Nashville's captain, Jason Arnott, back when he was with the New Jersey Devils in 2000:
Perhaps the most recognizable aspect of playoff competition is the beard - that grand tradition wherein hockey players refuse to shave as long as they're still playing. By the end of the long march to the Stanley Cup Finals, the participants look as if they've fought their way through a barren wasteland just to show up, and that's because they pretty much have done exactly that.
For a peek at how the Preds might look as this month proceeds, you can see just how hirsute they got during their "Movember" charity drive earlier this season. I'm going with Steve Sullivan and J.P. Dumont as the heavy favorites here.
Granted, some of the younger players might have trouble with this tradition, as noted by rookie Colin Wilson in this recent interview with WKRN's Cory Curtis:
During the long 82-game regular season, there's not much history carried over from one contest to the next. In fact, coaches often talk about the benefit of taking things "one day at a time" and looking at each game with a fresh perspective.
In the playoffs, however, that changes quite a bit. By facing a single opponent for up to two weeks, the Predators will focus much more on individual matchups, and you can expect that even though there hasn't been much animosity between Nashville and Chicago in years past, the seeds of a genuine rivalry are getting planted right now. Just as the Preds have a chance to become heroes, the Blackhawks will be stacked with villains.
Ask any Nashville fan, and they'll tell you that the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks (who have each defeated the Predators twice in playoffs past) are right at the top of their most-hated list in the NHL. When the Stanley Cup is on the horizon, whichever team stands in your way becomes an easy bunch to hate.
It's on, Chicago!
It's one thing to enjoy the phenomenal atmosphere at Bridgestone Arena during a playoff game, but another way to capture the spirit is to join your fellow Preds fans for a viewing party when the team is on the road. Games 1 & 2 will be in Chicago on Friday and Sunday evening (7:30 p.m. Central start), making it easy to plan your weekend.
104.5 "The Zone" is organizing one such party Friday night at Blackstone Restaurant and Brewery (1918 West End Ave.), which will feature ticket giveaways for Game 3, merchandise prizes, and food & drink specials. The rowdies from Section303.com are also involved, and will have details for further viewing parties on their site later today.
With any luck, you'll be able to enjoy great moments like this with 100 or so of your new-found closest friends: