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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

The Stanley Cup playoffs are the most unpredictable in sports -- and that's what makes them extra special

Both top seeds were knocked out in the first round, something you don't see in the NBA.

Columbus Blue Jackets' Matt Duchene celebrates the team's

Columbus Blue Jackets' Matt Duchene celebrates the team's win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 4 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series, Tuesday, April 16, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio. Photo Credit: AP/Jay LaPrete

That’s hockey.

For decades, people in the sport have used that phrase to explain many unfathomable questions.  It still is the best possible answer to why the Stanley Cup playoffs are more unpredictable and inexplicable than any other postseason in sports.

A game played on ice is going to make logic do some slipping and sliding to begin with. The playoffs just ramp up the surprise quotient. Consider that the NBA hasn't had a No. 8 seed knock off a No. 1 seed in the past seven years, but the NHL had it happen twice last week.

In other leagues, you almost never see a conference’s lowest seed completely wipe out the top seed, which the Blue Jackets did to the Lightning, matching the Predators’ sweep of the Blackhawks two years ago. This year’s eighth-seeded Avalanche knocked out the Flames in five games.

On top of that, the Blues, who entered the new year as the NHL’s worst team, eliminated the high-flying Jets Saturday. Even the Islanders series, in which the higher-ranked team won, was a surprise in its one-sidedness.

“Hockey is an extremely structured sport, but it’s also extremely random. A bounce here or there can change a game or change a series,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said. “I think it makes it more exciting. You can be a fan of an 8 seed that squeaks in and goes on a run.”

Teammate Casey Cizikas said, “It’s a funny sport. That’s why I think people love the game and why people love to play it. Every year, there’s something going on. And this year is crazier than most.”

The Islanders, still in underdog mode, see this as wonderful. They notice that anybody can beat anybody and believe they have a shot at the Stanley Cup this season. A fan of a division champion, on the other hand, might find the playoffs a tad too arbitrary. Entering Monday night, home teams had won 21 times in this NHL postseason, road teams had won 20.

No NBA 8 seed ever has won the title (only the 1999 Knicks reached the final),  but the 2012 Kings won the Stanley Cup.

Whether you call all of this exhilarating or frustrating, there are some rational explanations for why the irrational results.

First, the NHL’s salary cap has a more decisive impact than its counterparts in other sports. If parity is the goal, hockey’s cap is Wayne Gretzky. “It’s a tight league. That’s what’s nice about this league. You’ve seen it throughout maybe the last five years. Teams that didn’t make the playoffs one year, make the playoffs the next year,” Islanders goalie Robin Lehner said.

Speaking of Lehner, a Vezina Trophy finalist, it is worth noting no other sport has a position quite like a goalie. A hot one can trump an opponent’s strengths, a weak one can ruin his own team’s hard work.

Also, hockey is an extremely fast-moving sport in which a series can change in an instant — and remain that way. Barry Trotz made a solid motivational point for his Islanders when he said momentum plays “zero point zero” role in the playoffs. But reality says otherwise. Once the Blue Jackets got on a roll in the second period of Game 1 against the Lightning, they stayed on it. Tampa Bay’s six stellar months went down the tubes in the blink of an eye.

Thomas Hickey said, “The regular season is for who gets into the playoffs and the playoffs are for who’s playing well at the right time.”

Maybe this is not all good. Perhaps the Islanders will have a different perspective if they are a first-place team in a year or two. Possibly the NHL would be better off with the glamour of a consistently dominant team such as the Golden State Warriors.

For better or worse ——_and most of us probably would agree it’s for the better — this much is sure: “Playoff hockey,” Lee said, “is different from anything else.”

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