We’re a few games into the second round of the NHL playoffs, and so far this postseason has been a mixed bag. We’ve seen several favorites move on, a handful of upsets, a sweep, and a pair of Game 7s. We’ve had the usual mix of great saves, heroic individual efforts, and controversial moments. And with two more rounds after this one, no doubt there’s far more to come.
But with eight series down and four more under way, it’s hard to escape a certain sense of familiarity setting in. That’s because while every playoff series is unique in its own way, they all tend to follow a pattern. So whether you’re relatively new to all of this or you’re a veteran fan who could use a refresher, now would be a good time to run down the list of 25 moments you can expect to encounter in any given NHL playoff series.
1. The matchup is finalized
If you’re lucky, you get up to a week’s notice. More often, you get only a couple of days. But either way, it’s more than enough time to start building up some animosity balanced with a healthy dose of fear. These guys aren’t bad, but your team should be able to beat them as long as everything goes according to plan.
It should be an enjoyable series. And hey, may the best team win.
2. You familiarize yourself with the other team’s media
Now is a good time to seek out some of the other team’s local media and get to know their work. After all, they know the opponent best, and you’ll probably gain some valuable inside information by keeping up with their output. Follow a few of them on Twitter, just to make sure you’re always getting both sides of the story over the weeks to come. Make sure you get the lead columnist from all the major dailies, plus a radio guy or two. Maybe even throw in the play-by-play guy — you’ve heard he’s quite the card. Always good to hear some voices from across the aisle, right?
3. Game 1
This is the big one. Game 1 sets the tone. It’s the one that determines who gets the momentum. Over the course of NHL history, the team that wins Game 1 has gone on to win the series 112 percent of the time. I may not have that number exactly right, but it’s something close. Game 1 is everything.
(Note: By the end of the series, you will not remember anything that happened in Game 1.)
4. You admit that you respect the other team’s best player
You’re rooting against the guy — that goes without saying — but you have to admit to a certain grudging respect. He’s a hell of a player. Sure, he has delivered the occasional cheap shot and he probably dives a little bit too much for your liking, but you’d take him on your team in a second.
5. The coaches start working the referees
Well, that didn’t take long. Within minutes of the first game ending (and sometimes even before), both coaches are in full-on lobbyist mode. Of course, they can’t actually say that they think the referees are screwing them — there’s no sport in that. No, they have to try to go subtle, feigning confusion over the rulebook and saying things like, “I really thought that interference in the neutral zone/setting picks in the defensive end/running over the goalie with a Zamboni was against the rules, but apparently it’s not. So I guess we better start doing it, too.”
It’s shameful and laughably over the top. It also works every single time without fail, with the exception of whenever your team’s coach does it.
6. You find that one guy on the other team who looks weird
Do the other team’s fans know about this? It’s always some third- or fourth-liner you’d never heard of before, and he doesn’t really do all that much in the series. But he’s on camera just often enough that you start to wonder: What’s wrong with this face? Does he realize his jaw does that? Where is he from, and does everyone who’s from there look like that? Every time this guy shows up onscreen for the rest of the series, the next five minutes of the game will be ruined.
7. Each fan base picks one player on the other team to boo
This is always a fun one, since it happens organically. There’s no meeting; nobody holds a vote; nobody sends a memo. But at some point, everyone unanimously decides to boo one (and only one) player on the other team every time he touches the puck. It could be the superstar, the pest, or just some random guy, but it will happen to somebody.
(Underrated moments in any series are the first few times this happens, since it’s really confusing when you’re not used to it yet. One team is passing the puck around during a line change and suddenly everyone’s booing, and you’re left going, “Wait, what’s going on, is something happening behind the play that … oh, right, it’s that guy.”)
8. You fall in love with one of your team’s third-liners
He’s so gritty! And he competes so hard! And his heart! And his beard! And that one time a better player shot the puck and it deflected off his armpit and into the net! So clutch …
This offseason, he’s going to use this playoff run to demand a massive contract. This time next year, you will hate him for ruining your team’s cap. But today, you are willing to name your firstborn after him.
9. You realize that the other team’s media are rampant homers
Are they even watching the same series? It doesn’t seem like it. Although, in their defense, it’s probably hard to type when your arms are full from carrying all that water for the home team. And what a bunch of babies! You can’t even tell them that their latest column about the series sucked every day for a week without them blocking you on Twitter. Good. Unfollow them all. Boy, you sure are glad that your local fan base is far too sophisticated to tolerate this sort of shameless homerism.
By the way, there’s a good chance that this stage is reached as a direct result of …
10. The controversy
Ooh boy. Buckle in.
Maybe it comes earlier than this, or maybe they save it until the very end, but it’s coming. It could be a borderline hit, or a controversial no-goal, or a missed penalty. It might not even happen on the ice — maybe somebody says something inappropriate, or some fans do something dumb. By this point, everyone is on edge and probably a little bit oversensitive, so it won’t take much.
But at some point, something will happen that will have everyone at each other’s throats. This will result in lots of insults and hand-wringing and more than a few Very Serious Columns being written. It will also result in the end of at least one of your childhood friendships. Hey, it’s the playoffs — everyone has to be willing to sacrifice.
Fun fact: Decades from now, mentioning this controversy to a member of the other team’s fan base will lead to an instant fistfight. If you ever see two senior citizens leap out of their wheelchairs and start choking each other with IV tubes in the middle of a wedding reception, assume they’re old-time hockey fans and one of them just mentioned Leon Stickle.
11. You start to sports-hate the other team’s best player
Remember that grudging respect from before? Yeah, it’s gone. You always figured this guy was an honest player, but now that you’ve had a chance to watch him up close for a few games, you realize he’s a punk. Has he ever taken a penalty he didn’t cry to the referee about? And what’s the deal with the exaggerated head snap every time anyone breathes on him? You’d still take him on your team, sure, but only after the leaders told him to knock that stuff off. Your team doesn’t do that stuff, after all.
You don’t dislike him personally, of course — you’re sure he’s a perfectly nice guy away from the rink — but the sports-hate is raging strong.
12. The blowout that your team wins
This is easily the best possible playoff game. It’s fun, it’s easy … it’s almost relaxing. You could get used to this. You know they can’t all be like this one, but for one night, at least, you get a bit of a break. The birds sing a little louder, the flowers bloom a little brighter, and everything is right with the world.
Note: In today’s NHL, any lead bigger than two goals counts as a blowout.
13. You develop an irrational hatred toward the other team’s anthem singer
This is a weird one, since this is the one job in the entire series that’s basically harmless. But at some point during a playoff series, you will come to hate the other team’s anthem singer.
It makes sense, in a way. The final few moments before a playoff hockey game are tense. You’re nervous, maybe even a little nauseated, and you’re anxious to just get the game going. And just when you’re ready to drop the puck, guess who struts and/or waddles and/or sprints their way onto the ice with a microphone in their hand? It’s the good ol’ anthem singer, ready to warble their way through a 16-minute interpretation of the anthem(s), complete with all their trademark facial expressions and vocal tics and that one part where they let the crowd take over, and then their wacky hand gestures at the end. (Alternative: They don’t do any of that stuff because they’re just so classy and important that Lord forbid they loosen up and have some fun.)
14. The blowout that the other team wins
Well, that sucked. But hey, nobody ever wins the Stanley Cup by going 16-0. You’re going to lose a few here and there, and at least when it’s a blowout, there’s no drama or what-ifs to deal with. You lose, you make some adjustments, and you move on.
In fact, since the end result has already been determined by midway through the second period, you can even turn the game off early and go play with your kids. (You won’t do this. Nobody ever has. But, in theory, you could.)
15. The weird gap between games
Wait, why are there three days between games? The teams didn’t even have to travel. What are you doing, NHL schedule maker?
If the gap is big enough, this also creates the possibility that your series becomes “The one series that’s one game behind everyone else.” Everybody else hates this series.
16. The first close game
This is not fun. Your stomach hurts. Your head aches. You’re sweating in places that you’re pretty sure aren’t supposed to have sweat glands. You’re not paying any attention to your surroundings, so you just spent the first half of the third period eating an entire popcorn bowl. Not the popcorn; you gnawed your way through the actual bowl.
If your team is losing, the clock jumps ahead two minutes every time you look up. If your team is winning, it never moves. Every shift is a migraine. Every shot on goal is a minor heart attack. Every goal is … well, you’re not really sure, because you blacked out and woke up in a different person’s house. They weren’t very happy about it, either.
These games make for great entertainment when they’re between two teams you don’t care about. But when it’s your team? This is agony. A close playoff game may be the worst thing in the entire world.
17. You get a grip
It’s a game. That’s all it is. You’re supposed to be enjoying it. The occasional close game is just part of the journey. Maybe you win, maybe you lose, but in the big picture, none of this really matters. It’s for fun. That’s all it is.
Smile. Take a deep breath. You can get through this.
18. The first overtime game
OH NO GOD WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO ME???
19. You come to legitimately hate the other team’s best player
You know what? Screw sports-hate, and screw grudging respect. You want to punch this guy right in his smirking face. You wouldn’t care if his family were there. You hope his family is there. You’ll make his infant children hold your jacket.
20. The afternoon game
Afternoon games are weird. It’s too early and too sunny and everything just feels off. You understand why we have them — thanks, national TV deals — and you’re fine with that. They should just never involve your team.
21. The one guy on your team who’s not hurt but sure seems like he’s hurt
He says he’s not hurt. The coach says he’s not hurt. He’s not listed anywhere on the injury report. But he sure looks hurt. He seems like he’s a half-step slower. He isn’t launching himself into the physical battle quite as much as he usually does. And his body language on the bench between shifts gives just the slightest hint that something isn’t right; it’s subtle, but if you’ve watched this team all year long, it’s the kind of thing you pick up on.
Oh, and also he’s been playing with three-quarters of his femur poking out of his uniform since early in Game 2. There’s also that. But the team says he’s not hurt, so I guess he’s fine.
22. You acknowledge the possibility that the other team may just be better than yours
Just kidding. This has never happened in the history of the playoffs. Delete this item from the list.
22. Game 7 (if necessary)
Game 7s are the worst, and if you’re lucky, you won’t get to this stage. But eventually, if you’re a fan for long enough, Game 7 happens.
Are you nervous enough? You feel like you should be more nervous. But as you settle into your lucky chair to watch the game, you feel a strange sense of calm. Maybe it’s because you’re maturing as a fan. Maybe it’s because a little part of you has died after every game in the series and they’ve taken most of your capacity for human emotion with them. Or maybe it’s because it’s 4 a.m. and the game doesn’t start for 15 more hours. Oh well. You’ll just lie here and shiver in the fetal position until then. Maybe you’ll eventually grab a snack. Hey, didn’t we used to own a popcorn bowl?
23. You start to get the sinking feeling that playoff hockey between two evenly matched teams in the parity era comes down entirely to luck and you’re basically rooting for flipping coins
Shhhh. Ignore this feeling. It goes away really quickly. Grit! Heart! Compete level!
24. Your team wins the series
Obviously, not everyone gets to this stage. But if you do, congratulations. This is a big moment for you.
And yes, I do mean for “you.” Not your team. You. You did this. You had a hand in it. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. You may not have laced up the skates, but you were a part of this. You never doubted, you never wavered, and you never gave up. Even when some members of your own fan base — those vile traitors — started to lose faith, you believed. And you were rewarded.
And really, it was never in doubt. Looking back, all of those rocky moments leading up to this one were just the inevitable dashes of drama that every great story needs. They were painful at the time, but now, at the end of it all, they were worth it. It was all worth it.
This was great. This was fun. This is what being a hockey fan is all about.
25. You realize you have to do this all over again in two days
You just projectile vomited popcorn bowl shards all over your living room.