NHL hockey gets heated as Stanley Cup playoffs begin

The Stanley Cup sits ready to be engraved for the next NHL champion. (credit: Courtesy of John Davis via Flickr Creative Commons) The Stanley Cup sits ready to be engraved for the next NHL champion. (credit: Courtesy of John Davis via Flickr Creative Commons)

There exists only one major professional sport that accepts physical brawling as a valid way to settle a dispute: ice hockey. Some consider it a barbaric and outdated way of problem solving, but fighting has definitely given hockey the identity of one of the most brutal and physically enduring sports in the world. Hockey teams in the United States and Canada spend the winter and spring facing off against each other in a season style format, where wins earn points that go toward a team’s seeding in the postseason playoffs. The National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs are the pinnacle of competition in ice hockey. 16 teams are admitted to the playoffs, and they play in a best-of-seven series format to determine the winner of each matchup. The ultimate reward is the Stanley Cup, a massive trophy that has the names of winning players and coaches engraved into its chalice. This is the epitome of accomplishments in ice hockey, next to winning the gold medal in the Olympics.

This year’s Stanley Cup playoffs have already proven to be unusual, even after just one round of play. For just the second time in NHL history, none of the seven Canadian teams qualified for the postseason. Also, both Florida-based teams made the Stanley Cup playoffs for only the second time ever. While these are both unusual situations, there are some staple teams that have maintained their spot as consistent postseason contenders. The Detroit Red Wings have qualified for the playoffs for 25 consecutive years, although they’ve been knocked out already in the first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Also, each of the three California-based teams have made the playoffs in the same season for the fourth time in six years. Unusual contenders like the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers are sure to shake things up in the Stanley Cup playoffs this year.

The NHL is divided into two conferences, the east and the west. Each conference brings eight teams to the playoffs, two of which are wild card teams that had to play matches to fight for their spot in the tournament. In the eastern conference, the Washington Capitals look like the team to beat after winning the conference championship for the regular season. The Capitals’ star forward Evgeny Kuznetsov along with veteran winger and captain Alexander Ovechkin are sure to put up a formidable challenge for any team looking to make a run for the Stanley Cup. With the Red Wings knocked out, the Pittsburgh Penguins and each of the Florida teams are looking right at Washington to see if they will slip up. Pittsburgh will look to young superstar Sidney Crosby along with seasoned goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to try and stifle their opponents. Fleury will not have an easy job against the explosive offenses of the Florida teams. The Lightning’s dynamic trio of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman have been picking apart defenses all season and they’ll look to do the same against their next opponent.

The western conference has less obvious favorites. The Dallas Stars are the immediate contenders to make the finals because they won the western conference championship for the regular season. The Stars are led by captain and forward Jamie Benn, who poses a massive offensive threat to any team looking to get past the first seed in the west. The Anaheim Ducks are the Stars’ biggest challenge, and as champions of the Pacific division in the western conference, they’re hungry for more. Winger Corey Perry and forward Andrew Cogliano will spearhead the offense for the Ducks, and their experience will make for some interesting games.

No matter what team you’re rooting for, or even if you’re not rooting for a team, the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs will undoubtedly be one the most intense sporting events of the year. The games can be seen on major sports networks, and the fourth and final round will be held in early June. These modern-day gladiators are going to pour their hearts out onto the ice for their teams, and you won’t want to miss a minute.