By Ron Wynn,
One of the often difficult realities in professional sports that teams discover is that the playoffs are a totally different animal from the regular season. During Major League Baseball’s 162-game marathon, or the 82-game seasons of the NBA and NHL there are many variables that can skew the picture. Injuries, teams from the East to West Coast or vice versa, back-to-backs or stretches of three games in four or five days can all wreck havoc on a team’s record. Consequently, a team can get on a hot streak and then depending on how they are scheduled build a comfortable record by defeating weaker teams and just breaking even in games with the better ones.
But over the last week, the big difference between the playoffs and regular season has once again come squarely in focus as the NBA and NHL playoffs continue. The results have been both surprising and disappointing, and in some cases devastating. Example number one came in the NBA’s Eastern Conference where the teams that finished number one (Toronto) and number three (Philadelphia) were eliminated in the second round by opponents that finished fourth (Cleveland) and second (Boston). Now in the case of Philadelphia it wasn’t quite as big an upset as some thought, because many people greatly underestimated the prowess and development of Boston’s young players, in particular Jason Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier. In the case of Rozier, whose playing time would be greatly reduced if Kyrie Irving were available, he’s been a revelation, while Brown’s continued emergence and Tatum’s spectacular rookie season have enabled the Celtics to overcome the absence of both Irving and another All-Star Gordon Hayward, who went down in the very first game of the regular season.
Philadelphia had come into the second round winners of 20 out of 21, and well rested following a 4-1 rout of Miami in the first round. But they quickly came unglued under the pressure of the Celtics’ defense, particularly in games two and five where critical last minute mistakes turned possible 76er victories into Celtic triumphs. It was over in five games, as Philadelphia never really got going and the Celtics continued their unlikely return to the Conference Finals. Indeed the Milwaukee Bucks proved a much tougher opponent for the Celtics, taking them to seven games, than the higher finishing 76ers. The same proved true for the defending Conference champions Cavaliers, who got blown off their own floor in Game 1 by the Indiana Pacers and barely survived that series. This was supposed to be the year that the Toronto Raptors, who won a franchise record 59 games and had home floor advantage, would finally make the breakthrough to the Conference Finals and maybe even the NBA Finals.
Sadly, that never happened. The Raptors blew a 14-point second half lead in Game 1, lost in overtime and were swept by the Cavaliers. Management was so disappointed they eventually fired head coach Duane Casey, despite his winning the Goldberg Award as NBA Coach of the Year. The 76ers probably won’t fire their head coach, but fans there were also considerably upset that their team didn’t make a better showing after having such a dominant regular season, in particular the final half.
The unhappy reaction in Toronto was more than matched in Nashville, as the Predators became the ninth President’s Trophy winner in the last 10 years to go down early in the playoffs. The Predators set franchise records for points, consecutive wins, had finalists for both the Vezina and Norris trophies, and seemed more than ready to make a return to the Stanley Cup Final. Then came the Winnipeg Jets, a team that to be fair finished only three points behind the Predators, but were still viewed as the underdog, especially since one of the records that the Predators had set this season was home ice wins. Plus they had a 9-2 home record in last year’s playoffs with lesser talent.
Seven games later, the Predators were out, beaten three times in four Bridgestone Arena games, something that still shocks most fans. Likely Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne wound up being pulled three times in four home games, including at the 10:47 mark of Game 7, the earliest exit in Stanley Cup history for a goalie in a Game 7. The Predators were outscored 19-9 in the four home contests, and only won the second game 5-4 in double overtime on a magical goal by Kevin Fiala. The team whose defensive corps topped every team in scoring had two members fail to score in the playoffs, and no one could figure out why Rinne could go on the road in Games 4 and 6 and give up ONE goal in 120 minutes, yet give up nearly five a game at home. It gave the Predators only a small measure of comfort that their rivals last season in the Stanley Cup Final Pittsburgh also bowed out in round two, and also lost at home to a team they had long dominated, the Washington Capitals.
The ultimate bottom line: the playoffs really are a different animal.