The first rounds of the NBA and NHL playoffs are well underway, and the only New York team involved in either one isn’t even from New York. The New Jersey Devils have struggled against their division rival Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round, trailing two games to one early on, despite earning the #2 seed during the regular season. Not one of the favored teams in the NHL playoffs won both of the first games on their home ice. Every series got off to a 1-1 start. And so far the lower seeded Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche and the unheralded Phoenix Coyotes have 2-1 leads.
Meanwhile in the NBA playoffs, road teams have only won two games in the early going. The Portland Trailblazers took game one in Phoenix against the Suns and the Utah Jazz won game two in Denver against the Nuggets. The NBA and NHL playoffs look very similar on paper; 16 teams, East vs. West, best-of-seven series, but the similarities end there. Home court means much more than home ice. The NBA playoffs tend to be very chalk as the higher seeds in each conference usually advance each round, with very few instances of lower seeded teams scoring big upsets and making unpredicted runs deep in the playoffs. But in the NHL playoffs, lower seeded teams can steal a couple rounds, usually on the back of great goaltending or going against a team with a weak net minder, and make extended runs to a Stanley Cup.
History shows the same trend. Last year in the NBA both top seeds in the conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the eventual-champion Los Angeles Lakers each made it to the conference finals, and the Finals match-up was the Lakers against the third seed Orlando Magic. The 2008 Finals between the Lakers and Boston Celtics was a meeting of two top seeds, and the conference finals were one-two and one-three. The lowest seed to make the NBA Finals this decade was the 2006 Miami Heat, who were a four seed. Only twice in the decade (2006, 2007) did a four seed make it to the conference finals. Since 1994 we have seen five NBA Finals featuring the top seeds in each conference (1996, ‘97, ‘98, 2000, ‘08) and only three top seeds have been eliminated in the first round, and one of those was after the lockout shortened 1999 season when the Knicks upset the Heat en route to the finals, but the seeds didn’t mean as much that year. The other two eight seeds, the 1994 Denver Nuggets and the 2007 Golden State Warriors, were each knocked off the following round.
The NHL playoffs are far less predictable. Since 1994 there has only been one Stanley Cup Finals pairing of top seeds, most recently in 2001 when the Colorado Avalanche beat the Devils in seven. For three straight seasons this decade, the finalist emerging from the Western Conference was a six seed or lower (seven seed Anaheim in 2003, six seed Calgary in 2004, and eight seed Edmonton in 2006 - remember there was no NHL season in 2005). Frequently in the last decade a five-or-lower seed has made it to the conference finals. When the Oilers made their run to the Finals as the eighth seed in 2006 they played the sixth seed Ducks in the conference finals as every lower seed in the West won in the first round that year. Three more times since the NHL switched to a one-eight seed format in 1994 did three lower seeded teams win in the opening round (In 1998 and 1999 the six, seven and eight seeds won in the East and in 2001 the five, six and seven seeds won in the East). Six seeds have made the conference finals in five of the past six seasons, and only once since the Avalanche and Devils met in the finals have two top seeds even reached the conference finals, (2007, and both top seeds, Detroit and Buffalo, lost that round) and eight top seeds have been knocked off in the first round since 1994, including one after the lockout shortened 1995 season, when the Rangers beat the last Quebec Nordiques team ever.
We have the answers, which leaves us with the big question: Which results give the fans the best experience? Is it better when we see upsets and unpredictability or when the best team wins? Fans watch sports for a little bit of both. We like seeing the underdog pull off what no one outside their locker room thought they could and try to make an impossible dream into a reality (isn’t that what every inspirational sports movie is about?) but we also like seeing the teams the proved their ability during the long regular season and have either the best players or the best cohesive unit to stay on the floor/rink and on our TV’s. If a top team loses early in the playoffs, does that invalidate the regular season and deprive the fans of seeing the best teams play the last games? Is it really as matter-of-fact that it is easier for a road team to win in the NHL than the NBA?
The 2010 incarnation of both league’s playoffs are already looking to shape out in the same way. Most NBA fans expect the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks and the Lakers to make up the final four teams, which will guarantee that two of the NBA’s marquee players (Lebron James, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, or Kobe Bryant) will headline the Finals. Or if a team like the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, or Atlanta Hawks can sneak into the conference finals, it would still continue the top seed trend and feature some of the biggest names in the league.
The NHL is keeping with it’s unpredictable form as the West’s top seed San Jose Sharks and the East’s two seed Devils are both down 2-1 after three games. Both three seeds (Sabres and Canucks) are down 2-1 as well. The Red Wings are a five seed, but everybody thought their playoff experience would trump the Coyotes youth. Trendy cup picks like the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals are relying and shaky goalies and could be bumped off early. You can’t predict the first round, let alone the Stanley Cup Finals. Maybe some big stars will be playing for the Cup, or maybe it will be a lucky team with a hot goalie.
When I don’t have a team in the race, as I don’t this year in either the NBA or the NHL, I like to see underdogs get their moment of glory and knock off a couple of big teams, and I like seeing the drama and uncertainty of a lower seeded team giving a title contender everything they can handle. But would I want to see a six seed battle an eight seed in the finals of either sport? Not really. I want to see Lebron and the Cavs get to the finals against a good western conference team. And I’d like to see one of the NHL’s big stars like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Miller, Jonathan Toews, or Roberto Luongo play for the Stanley Cup. But I don’t like if it’s top seeds all the way. I believe as sports fans we want to see something we never expected, because that’s what makes watching sports so interesting. The NBA could use some more upsets while the best teams in the NHL need to show that they really are the best.
If I had to pick one, (but thankfully we don’t that’s what remote controls and Sportscenter are for) I would say I enjoy the chaos and excitement of the NHL playoffs over the standard chalk of the NBA. But what do you think?