The NHL Playoffs are, without a shadow of a doubt, my Christmas morning every spring. They're just ... perfect. (Unless of course the Rangers aren't involved, in which case they're a blasphemous activity only heathens and criminals take part in.) Spring is my favorite season anyway. Something about the warmth, the wetness in the air, the trees springing back to life, the breeze in my face and the colors bursting from every corner just puts me in a great mood.
Couple that with the playoffs, and it makes it even better.
Look, I'm an incredibly biased hockey fan. If you could guarantee me the New York Rangers would win the Stanley Cup this year, but in exchange hurl the Yankees, Knicks and Giants into a decade-long death-spiral in which they never win another game, I would do it and not lose an ounce of sleep. This isn't me banging my chest about how big of a Rangers' fan I am, it's me telling you I really don't care about any other sport.
So I understand some might not share my views on hockey, but I firmly believe it's the most exciting sport in the world (and it's not even close), the best sport to attend live (again, not even close) and it has the best playoffs of any professional sport (seriously, nothing even enters hockey's stratosphere here). And don't even get me started on how much better the Stanley Cup is than any other trophy anywhere.
Playoffs are special in every sport, but I really do believe they're more hyped in hockey than anywhere else. There's a true clean slate. The parity is unmatched. It wasn't long ago that the world watched the 8th ranked LA Kings march through the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup. The NBA has had two instances in its history in which an 8th seeded team has ever pulled even a first-round upset, and neither of those two upsets happened in a seven-game series. In hockey, anything can happen. And routinely, it does.
That's why we love the playoffs. You can't explain it. You can't predict it. You can't match it. All you can do is sit in your seat (or sit in front of a TV) and go along for the ride. You have no control, you don't know where you're going, you don't know how long it will last, it has twists and turns that would make even the strongest stomach sick and for 15 of the 16 fanbases your rollercoaster ride will end with an unsatisfying finish that leaves you longing for next year.
I say this all the time: You don't enjoy a playoff hockey game. You might look back on a game and say, "oh that was an amazing game," but in the moment it's nothing but an horrifying blend of emotions. The best example was the Rangers' 2-1 overtime victory over the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. For those who don't remember, Brad Richards' tied the game with 6.6 seconds left, and Marc Staal won the game in overtime with a blast from the point. My emotions ranged from excitement (at the beginning of the game), to anger (as the Rangers entered the third period down 2-1), to more anger, to disbelief (the Rangers took close to 45 shots on goal before Richards scored), to pure jubilation (the tying goal), to nervous (the intermission between the third and overtime) to disbelief again (when Staal scored) and then absolute celebration. All that in a span of three hours. You don't get that in the regular season. You invest differently in the playoffs.
It's about walking to the Garden, passing people with Rangers jerseys on 30 blocks away. It's about going to the games an hour and a half early because you want to sit through the pre-game warm ups. It's about getting excited that John Amirante is signing the national anthem because he sang it in 1994 and it has to mean something today. It's about not being able to hear yourself during the national anthem, making connections with total strangers because you're both wearing the same colored jersey. It's about the emotions that come with an overtime, the happiness that comes with a win and the emptiness that comes with a loss. It's about soaking up everything, because you don't know when you'll be back on the ride.
Life suddenly ends up revolving more around hockey than it does anything else. The playoff dates are blacked off on your calendar, dinner dates cancelled, plans with friends tossed out the window. Mornings and afternoons before the game turn into clock-watching sessions that do nothing but extend the time. Which is hilarious, since if your team is losing in the third period time seems to do nothing but fly forward as though the Hockey Gods have a remote control and are furiously pressing fast forward.
It's beautiful and it's horrifying. It depends on which side of the picture you look at. Think back to the Rangers' win over Washington in 2011 I mentioned above. I walked out of the Garden happier than I can ever remember. That never happens was the only thing I could say to my father the entire train side home. I couldn't process anything else. It was amazing.
But, I still remember every excruciating detail from the Chris Drury game-tying goal with 7.7 second left in 2007. I was in college, my freshman year. After Maxim Afinogenov scored the game-winning goal in overtime I left my dorm without saying a word and sat on a picnic table outside for about two hours. I don't know why. It didn't make me feel any better, but I couldn't be around people, it hurt that bad.
Same scenario, entirely different emotions.
We live for the game-winners, the players who make themselves legends, the moments you're going to tell your grandchildren about some day. At the same time, we have nightmares over the worst case scenarios, the heart-breaking moments we try but can't forget. The sleepless nights where you think about everything you could have done differently even though you actually don't play the game. Those thoughts hang over every game. More often than not, we're upset, hurt and empty when the playoffs end. But someone, someplace is happy. That's why we believe, right? Because it's going to happen to someone. Why can't it be us?
These moments (at least if you're reading this before the series has started) are some of the best. The anticipation, the clean slate, the hope. Every time your favorite team advances to the next round it's the same emotion. Anticipation. A clean slate. Hope. That's what you have right now.
That's what the playoffs is all about.