Is NHL Playoff Mayhem Hurting the League?

Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals leaves the ice following a defeat by the Carolina Hurricanes in Game Seven of the first round of the playoffs on Wednesday in Washington.

Source Patrick Smith/Getty

Why you should care

Because hockey is still waiting for its national breakthrough.

Hockey fans have come to expect a level of parity foreign to other major sports leagues, but not even the most grizzled ice house lifer could’ve predicted this Stanley Cup Playoffs first round. It began with Cup favorite Tampa Bay Lightning being unceremoniously swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets and ended with the defending champion Washington Capitals — and one of the league’s brightest stars in Alexander Ovechkin (pictured) — blowing Game 7 in double overtime to the typically woeful Carolina Hurricanes. Five of eight teams with home ice advantage were eliminated.

That level of chaos begets drama, but championship competition also brings with it an expectation of championship-caliber talent. So, after the wildest round of NHL hockey in years, will casual fans bother tuning in?

If Giannis Antetokounmpo and Steph Curry had been knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would’ve sent up the Bat Signal. Yet the NHL, still struggling for national appeal, appears content to carry on without Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.   

For good reason. While the NBA needs the best players taking the biggest playoff shots to maintain quality, hockey’s appeal is hair-raising tension, situational hysteria and the opportunity for any playoff-bearded skater to change the course of a game. With a narrower talent gap, the quality of playoff hockey supersedes any one team or star. Would it help if the “best” teams advanced? Maybe. But the best hockey is about grit, selflessness, tenacity — and whichever way the damn puck bounces. 

 

What to Watch & Pick ’Em

No. 4 Boston Celtics at No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks (Sunday at 1 pm ET on ABC)

Now the fun really begins. After two first-round sweeps, both the Celtics and Bucks look to prove that they are the Eastern Conference elite. Who lands the first punch in Game 1? 

  • Boston +7.5 
  • Milwaukee -7.5

Chelsea FC at Manchester United (Sunday at 11:30 am ET on NBCSN)

Sixth-place Man United looks to rebound after a loss to EPL-leading rival Manchester City and an embarrassing 4-0 rout against ninth-place Everton. 

  • Chelsea (+165) 
  • Man Utd (+165) 

Ones to Watch

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Buffalo Bulls quarterback Tyree Jackson throws a pass against the Boston College Eagles.

Source Matthew J. Lee/Getty

Tyree Jackson, Buffalo University. NFL scouts who have finally come around on the idea of an undersized quarterback are drooling over the diverse talents of possible No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray, but those looking for a gunslinger with size should allow their gaze to drift down the draft board. At 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, Jackson has size and strength in spades, but it’s his powerful arm and premier athleticism that might make him the steal of the 2019 NFL Draft. A redshirt junior, Jackson threw for 3,131 yards and 28 touchdowns versus 12 interceptions en route to winning the 2018 MAC Offensive Player of the Year award. His 4.59 40-yard-dash time was second among all quarterbacks at the combine. Thanks to a mediocre completion percentage (55.3 percent) last season, Jackson is considered a likely third-round pick. He has drawn favorable comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton, with others pointing to current Buffalo Bills starter Josh Allen (the No. 7 pick in 2018) as a more realistic comparison.

Andi Sullivan, Washington Spirit and USWNT. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick in the National Women’s Soccer League draft was runner-up for NWSL Rookie of the Year. This year, the 23-year-old midfielder could earn a ticket to the Women’s World Cup. Sullivan was part of the most recent U.S. roster for its California training camp but didn’t play in games against Australia and Belgium. Still, following a disappointing quarterfinal elimination in the 2016 Olympics, U.S. women’s national team coach Jill Ellis has aggressively experimented with roster changes and appears eager to give younger players a chance to make the World Cup cut. Previously, Sullivan has dominated at Under-20 World Cup and CONCACAF competitions. If the Stanford grad fails to make the final roster, she will be a key player in the NWSL this season and should be in peak form ahead of the Olympics in 2020. 

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Andi Sullivan (No. 3) of the United States dribbles the ball in as Monica Ocampo (No. 11) of Mexico defends.

Source Logan Bowles/Getty

Trending Up

Sleepers. With every football junkie’s favorite spring weekend upon us, it’s time for our unsolicited NFL Draft recommendations: Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien will fall due to mediocre arm strength, but he started for four years in a pro-style system and will be mentally prepared to compete from Day 1. The same can’t be said for West Virginia’s Will Grier. The All-Big-12 passer needs time to learn NFL schemes, but he’ll be a starter by 2022. At receiver, watch out for UMass’ record-setting speedster Andy Isabella, whom we can’t imagine not suiting up for New England, and former Texas Longhorn Lil’Jordan Humphrey. Humphrey’s 40-yard dash (4.75) was disappointing, but he has pro size and catches everything in sight. Memphis running back Darrell Henderson is undersized, but his insane 8.9 average yards per carry bodes well at the next level. On defense, keep an eye on Central Michigan cornerback Sean Bunting and Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai.

Trending Down

TV glass ceilings. The WNBA’s new deal with CBS Sports Network brings more professional women’s basketball to American audiences than ever before. Terms of the “multi-year” agreement were not disclosed, but it adds 40 live games in primetime and on weekends to the league’s $25 million per year deal with ESPN, which will air up to 35 regular season and playoff games. With CBS Sports Network games tipping off Saturday, May 25, “out of sight, out of mind” is no longer a reality for critics who argue against the league’s potential for growth. It’s a major milestone for WNBA players’ push for increased exposure and salaries — in the hopes they’ll all make enough to not have to play overseas in the offseason. 

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Don’t Miss

In our favorite announcement of the week, the Toronto Blue Jays promoted minor league third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., son of the Hall of Fame outfielder, to the Show. He’ll make his MLB debut Friday against Oakland. The 20-year-old rocketed through four levels of minor league ball last season, flashing the same penchant for towering drives that made his dad a household name. Check it out.

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