Like a lot of sport fans, I tend to gloss over the regular seasons in both the NBA and NHL, checking in only occasionally for some marquee fixtures. They may only have half as many games as baseball, but hockey and basketball have the disadvantage of having to compete with both English and American football calendars. However, when playoff time comes around in April, I am fully in on both leagues – even though, unlike in the NFL and MLB, I have no long-standing affiliation with any of the franchises in the NBA or NHL. Having said that, after I convinced a friend to become a Tottenham Hotspur fan when he was looking to follow English football more closely, I in turn adopted his hockey team – the Washington Capitals – and so for the last two years I have taken to rooting for them. It is a good match up of fanbases – Spurs have not won a title since the 1960s, while the Capitals were founded in 1974 and are yet to win a Stanley Cup, making the Finals just once in their history. Both teams also make a habit of underperforming and confounding their supporters expectations, despite having talented rosters.
Last year, Washington was the number 1 seed in the East, but their playoff run ended abruptly as they were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Conference Semi-finals. This time around, the Capitals are a number 7 seed, having only secured a postseason berth in the final week of the regular season, and are matched up against the reigning champions, the Boston Bruins. Because of injuries to Tomas Vokun and Michal Neuvirth, Washington was forced to enter the playoffs with their third choice goaltender, the rookie Braden Holtby. Despite being thrust into the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the race for the Stanley Cup, the youngster has performed brilliantly for the Capitals. Holtby made 29 saves in the game 1 overtime 1-0 loss in Boston, and then 44 in the second game double overtime victory for Washington. All six games thus far have all been decided by a single goal, with the two teams splitting the series to take it to an all or nothing Game 7 on Wednesday night.
Being a long time Yankees fan, I have grown accustomed to rooting against Boston sides in whichever sport they are playing, although the allegiance has not carried over to me adopting any of New York’s other teams. This weekend could have proven to be monumentally bad for the city of Boston had the Capitals knocked out the Bruins on Sunday, just a day after the Red Sox had blown a 9-0 lead over the Yankees, not to mention losing on Friday, to put a dampener on the celebrations of Fenway Park’s 100th birthday. While that would have been fun to see, there is nothing more exciting in any sport than a Game 7 in the NHL playoffs – two teams fighting it out to progress or win the Stanley Cup. When those encounters go into overtime, it is impossible not to be enthralled – any single shot could end one team’s season and, at the same time, send the victors into ecstasy.
In the other series in the Eastern Conference: the New York Rangers face elimination against the 8th seed Ottawa Senators in Game 6 – to be played in Canada on Monday night – as they have lost the last three, after opening up the series with two home victories; on Tuesday, the New Jersey Devils will try to stay alive in their game 6 against the Panthers, Florida currently has a 3-2 edge; and the Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 4 to 2 in a high scoring series that saw 56 goals in the 6 encounters. Over in the Western Conference, all but one of the series was wrapped up inside 5 games: the L.A. Kings knocked out the Vancouver Canucks, last year’s beaten Stanley Cup finalists and the team with the best regular season record in the NHL this time around; St. Louis made quick work of the San Jose Sharks; the Detroit Redwings fell to a 4-1 series loss to the Nashville Predators; and the Phoenix Coyotes will attempt to knock out the 2010 Champion Chicago Blackhawks in their Game 6 on Monday night.
Meanwhile, the NBA has reached the final week of the regular season and virtually all of the playoff places have been decided, with just the final spot in the West still up for grabs between the Utah Jazz and Steve Nash’s Phoneix Suns. Because of the strike, 66 games were crammed into just 126 days, giving younger, more athletic teams an advantage in a schedule that demanded quick turnarounds. As a result, the playoffs will be hard to predict, since the gap between games will return to the format of previous seasons, giving veteran teams a chance to recover – so seeding may not be as indicative as it has been in the past. At the top of the Western Conference, one of those older teams – the San Antonio Spurs – have stormed through the regular season and are likely to be the top seed. Just behind them, the young Oklahoma City Thunder team, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, will be hoping that the playoff experience they gained last year will help them progress further this time around. Kobe Bryant will attempt to win his sixth NBA Championship – tying the number of rings Michael Jordan got during his career – but his Lakers team will not be the only franchise from Los Angeles in the playoffs this year, as the Clippers – led by Chris Paul – are right behind them in the standings. With the Lakers, Clippers and Kings all still competing in their respective postseasons, Staples Center will be a busy arena in the next few months. The defending champions Dallas Mavericks are set to be the sixth seed at best this year – which would setup a rematch with the Lakers, whom they swept last May – but they remain contenders to emerge from the West. Memphis and Denver will both extend their seasons into the playoffs – as well as one of the Jazz and Suns – but none of these teams are expected to make it all the way to the NBA Finals.
Over in the Eastern Conference – the Chicago Bulls had to do without their star point guard, Derek Rose, for almost half of the regular season due to ankle and foot injuries, yet are on the verge of wrapping up the best record. Behind the Bulls: the Miami Heat are likely to be the number 2 seed, in their second season with the threesome of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh; the Indiana Pacers have a balanced young squad, but their lack of experience is likely to show up in the playoffs; while the opposite is true of the Boston Celtics, whose aging roster will still provide a tough opponent for Chicago in the second round. The New York Knicks have Amare Stoudemire returning from injury just in time for the playoffs, though fans of puns in sports reporting will be sad that Jeremy Lin will not be able to provide any more “Linsanity” in the postseason, as he is sidelined for at least the first round and, with his team facing either Chicago or Miami, they are unlikely to progress any further. The rest of the playoff teams in the East are: a Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic – the big man has been ruled out for the rest of the year with a back injury, combined with a deterioration of his relationship with manager Stan Van Gundy; an Atlanta Hawks team that will struggle to survive against the Celtics in the first round; and, barring an incredible turnaround in the standings by the Milwaukee Bucks, the Philadelphia 76ers.
Whatever the match-ups end up being in both sports, I always find that I am invested in the outcome one way or another, finding a team to root for – or against – in the course of play, for the most arbitrary of reasons. In the NBA, the team I want to see win the least is the Miami Heat – LeBron’s treatment of Cleveland fans showed no loyalty nor empathy to the plight of a city that has not had a championship in any sport since 1964, and that was a pre-Super Bowl NFL title. Outside of that – and the anti-Boston sports team bias I have developed – I often will not know who I am going to cheer for until I am watching the games. In both the NBA and the NHL, the one thing I always hope for is a Game 7 – although there is always that fear that a team will be trying to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best of 7 series and the TV network will be obliged to show the graphic recapping teams that have come back from that position before. The sole entry in the baseball column: 2004 Boston Red Sox.