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Monaco: Excitement of NHL playoffs draws fans (April 16)

Mike Monaco | Monday, April 16, 2012

You can call them bandwagon fans, fair-weather fans, or even just common fans. But regardless of how you choose to designate them, there is no denying that NHL fans come out in full force for the playoffs.

So what exactly makes Lord Stanley’s playoffs so exciting, considering the regular season is such an afterthought to the majority of well-rounded sports fans? It’s a question worth asking, since the inevitable spike in fandom that annually accompanies the commencement of the NHL playoffs is one not shared by the other major sports postseasons.

Sure, Super Bowl Sunday is practically a national holiday, but the NFL regular season is already zealously followed by a multitude of fans (even if they only care about their fantasy team).

Granted, there are ardent followers of the MLB postseason, but the long games, the longer breaks between games and the even longer interludes in between series make for a drawn-out postseason. By the time the World Series comes around, the fan support is akin to that of the regular season.

The same can be said for the NBA, where regular season primetime matchups between superstar-laden teams prompt high enough Nielsen ratings to mirror a game seven.

So what changes between a regular season showdown pitting the Philadelphia Flyers against the Pittsburgh Penguins in early April and a postseason clash between the same teams just two weeks later?

First and foremost, NHL playoff hockey is simply fun to watch. The speed of the game increases come playoff time, and with that comes more exciting bone-jarring hits, standing-on-his-head saves and picturesque goals. That’s not to say the regular season is something to sneeze at, but there’s no comparison to a playoff game.

And then there’s the overused, yet entirely accurate adage that “Anything can happen in a seven-game series,” which gives fans the (realistic) sense their beloved eight-seed can knock off the conference juggernaut. For evidence, look no further than this year’s playoffs. The Los Angeles Kings won the first two games against the defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, mind you, and are thinking upset.

Such occurrences aren’t even particularly anomalistic in the NHL. But in the NBA in 2007, when the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks were eliminated in round one by the Golden State Warriors, history was made.

There is also something about the blue-collar nature of the NHL playoffs that inspires sports fans to tune in when the postseason rolls around. The NHL hardly has the scintillating stars that are littered throughout the NBA and can carry their team (and television ratings) to new heights.

For every Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, there are a dozen journeymen third or fourth-liners who scrap their way through every shift and contribute with a forecheck here, a backcheck there and maybe even an occasional goal.

Contrast these rosters with an NBA or MLB squad, in which you need superstar(s) to win championships, and you will find the NHL generates incredible excitement in the playoffs with few transcendent megastars.

Take the defending champion Boston Bruins. They won last year’s Cup with little to no star power. Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas may have been the best players at their respective positions a year ago, but they certainly aren’t household names the way Dwight Howard and Albert Pujols are. The rest of the Bruins were scrappy and feisty in a manner that made you believe the whole is more than the sum of its parts. When you add it all together, you get a recently-dominant sports city that rediscovered its love for the formerly-forgotten Bruins.

So while you may poke and prod the fans that have jumped on the local bandwagon rolling by, or while you may have recently hopped on yourself, don’t forget they are doing so for a reason. These playoffs manufacture a newfound excitement level professional sports head honchos like Bud Selig only dream of attaining. So strap in and enjoy.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.