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Why the NHL playoffs produces more drama than the NBA playoffs

Doc Emrick and Ed Olczyk of NBC.

Doc Emrick and Ed Olczyk of NBC. Credit: NBC

The long road through the regular season and playoffs ended where everyone knew it must, with Warriors vs. Cavaliers III, which makes for a compelling NBA Finals but less so for the seven months that led up to it.

As ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said Tuesday, “I think it’s great to have greatness. It would have been even better if that greatness had been pushed a little bit harder [in prior rounds] so they had to dig down deep and find their way out of a hole.”

The NHL has no such problems, as usual providing the predictably unpredictable alternative to the NBA among the odd couple of winter sports.

True, the Penguins are back in the Stanley Cup Final, which they lead, 1-0, after Monday’s 5-3 victory over the Predators, but they twice needed seven games to survive earlier series and are trying to become the first repeat champ in 19 years.

The Preds, meanwhile, had the worst record among the 16 playoff participants – tied in points with the non-playoff Islanders – and never before had so much as reached a conference final.

The NBA equivalent would be the eighth-seeded Bulls or Trail Blazers reaching the NBA Finals. Not happening.

And the Predators lost Game 1 despite dominating most of the play. That’s hockey.

So, what is it about hockey that causes this sort of instability? The nature of the sport, with its strange bounces and “puck luck?” The importance of goaltenders? The parity of talent? The stars’ limited ice time?

NBC’s Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire and Doc Emrick took cracks at those questions on a conference call Tuesday to promote the network’s coverage of the Final, which continues on NBCSN on Wednesday night.

Eddie Olczyk

“I think it is all of the above,” Olczyk said. “We see the great equalizer, the guy in goal that can steal you a game or two. And the league is so close, let alone on a nightly basis but in these playoff series, it’s just a play here or a play there that separates teams that can move on. Unfortunately players lose jobs [based on that], coaches lose jobs, [general] managers as well.

“The league is just absolutely so close. Look, I go back to the year [2012] when the Kings were the eighth seed and they started every series obviously on the road but they started every series on their way to a Stanley Cup where they went 3-0 up in every series.

“That’s just incredible to be able to go on the road and win two games of every round to give yourself a chance to win the Stanley Cup. I just think it is all of the above and I just think it speaks to the depth of this league. It is a team game.

“If you look at the common denominator for me over the last handful of years it is that you need the guy in goal to be consistent. You need your goaltender to make the routine save 110 percent of the time. You can’t give up bad goals.

“You need the difference-makers up front, and you look at the teams who have won here in the past, they’ve had a stud on the back end. Nashville has a couple of them in particular in [Roman] Josi and [Mattias] Ekholm. You know what P.K. Subban has done. Ryan Ellis has emerged with more opportunity.

Pierre McGuire

“I’ll agree with everything Eddie just said and a couple more things: We haven’t had a bad draft in this league since 2003, so the talent bucket is full around the league because we’ve had these unbelievably strong drafts. And we haven’t had expansion since [2000].

“So because of no expansion and these unbelievably fruitful drafts, the talent bucket is full. Then you compound that with the salary cap and you compound that with the movement of unrestricted free agents and free agency being at a younger age, all these things put together lead to this amazing league full of parity, but also excellence.

“Parity can be great, but it’s even better if there’s excellence.”

Doc Emrick

“It’s the ultimate team game, too, because in a 60-minute game the best players don’t play half of it,” Emrick said. “Sidney Crosby played 20:09 and he had two assists. That means that for almost 40 minutes he wasn’t there. He wasn’t on the ice.

“He was on the bench, and yet he’s one of the best players in the sport and he makes a difference when he’s out there. And the rest of the time the rest of the players have to be pretty good, too.

“Roman Josi played more than any other Predator: 28:22, as a defenseman. That’s not quite half the game. The team depth just has to be there in this sport. You can’t count on star players to be out there three-quarters of the time. They just can’t do it because what’s required in hockey is so great in terms of speed and stamina and everything else. It’s not 94 feet or 92 feet, it’s 200. It’s a lot different.

“Both sports are wonderful sports, but this is one where you have to have so much team depth and you have to count on it for all 60 minutes.”

New York Sports