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Come on in, the Ice is Fine! A Beginner's Guide to Watching Playoff Hockey

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

These are some dark, depressing times we're living in nowadays, people. We're a good 6 months or so into this global pandemic, the majority of which we've all spent cooped up in our homes with no live sports to watch. We're in the trust tree here, so be honest: how many times have some of you re-watched the same show from start to finish over again? I mean, to each their own, but you can only watch Michael Scott say 'that's what she said' so many times.

But anyway, I digress, because after what seemed like an eternity, we finally DO have sports back in our lives. Baseball has been back for a little under a month now; it's also been a total dumpster fire, but we're not here to discuss that with you today. The NBA is just about three weeks into its re-start over in the Orlando bubble, with eligible teams having just completed the league's regular season last weekend. Postseason play began this past Monday, with Playoff games scheduled for each day beginning at 1:30 pm EST and extending into the wee hours of the morning. If not for the backdrop of a highly contagious virus looming over it all and being the root cause, this current setup would truly be a sports fan's dream.

But along with Baseball and Basketball gracing us with their returns and Football soon to follow, there's another sport back and underway that I wanted to chat about today. Some might even call it the COOLEST sport on Earth...and no, I'm not going to apologize for the corny pun. HOCKEY is back and the Stanley Cup Playoffs are fully underway with first round play as of last week. For anyone who might not know me too well, Hockey is actually my favorite sport, my first love. I enjoy each of the other major sports as well and you'll find me discussing them often, but I started playing Hockey at the age of 5 and I've been in love with it ever since. I get that it's not for everyone and I'm absolutely NOT one of those "please like my sport" people on social media. However, I will say that almost anyone who actually gives Hockey a fair shot winds up enjoying it. And right now, with a lot of people still holed up at home or working remotely and looking for something new to watch, there's no better time than the present to get hooked on this wonderfully entertaining sport.

Like the NBA, the NHL has been airing 4-5 games a day, with play beginning in the early afternoon and ending shortly after 1 am EST. Also like the NBA, the NHL has sequestered all eligible teams for its re-start in bubbles, with the Western Conference Playoffs taking place in Edmonton, Alberta and the Eastern Conference Playoffs going down in Toronto, Ontario. Die hard Hockey fans probably knew this already, but you guys aren't the target demographic of this blog today. This piece is meant for the people possibly testing the Hockey waters for the first time with so many games on TV right now -- the people who are tuning in and, while they definitely like the action, are a bit puzzled by the rules or complexity of what's happening on the ice. To those folks I'd say: we'd love to have you aboard and I want to help turn your budding interest into a full-on addiction. Below, I'll lay out a beginner's guide to watching (and enjoying) Hockey; follow this and by mid-October, I just know you'll be a die hard.

Okay, so right off the top, I'll just tell you that this is a weird year. Now, I know what you're thinking: "I didn't need to read this blog to know that 2020 is one of the weirdest years ever." What I mean in this case, though, is that this is not your typical Stanley Cup Playoffs (the first thing I'll teach you here is that, unlike the NBA, MLB or NFL, the NHL actually names its postseason after the trophy handed out to its champion -- so they're not the NHL Playoffs, they're the Stanley Cup Playoffs). When the NBA re-started, the league continued its regular season and let all teams that weren't yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs try to earn a spot. What the NHL did, on the other hand, was declare its regular season to be over. The top 12 teams in both the Eastern and Western Conferences, regardless of how far out of a playoff spot some of them were prior to the league shutting down in mid-March, were invited to participate in the league's unique re-start plan. Here's what that plan was:

  • Play resumed on 8/1 following 2 week training camp & 1 exhibition game per team

  • This was officially deemed Postseason Play, even though seeding was not yet set

  • Instead of the usual 16 team playoff format, 24 teams compete for Stanley Cup

  • Top 12 teams from each Conference resumed play, remaining 7 teams eliminated

  • Top 4 teams in East & West played a round robin tourney to decide their seeding

  • Although these were not regular season games, they used regular season rules

  • Bottom 8 teams in East & West all played best of 5 series to set rest of playoff field

So, from August 1st through the 9th, that's what we all watched. It was a ton of fun to have Hockey back and the product on the ice certainly didn't disappoint, but I wanted to clarify that this was not what we see each Spring as the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin. For example, the Boston Bruins, who were the league's best team at the time of the NHL season's suspension, had a tough time getting their legs under them in their round robin games. They lost each of those games and, despite winning the Presidents' Trophy this season (awarded to the team with the league's best record), began the playoffs as the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. Like I said, weird. But wait -- it gets weirder! The 5th seed in both the Eastern and Western Conferences, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers, each lost their best-of-5 play-in series against teams that wouldn't have sniffed the playoffs in a "normal" year.

So yeah, like I said, this has been a weird season. But weird isn't necessarily a bad thing! In the Play-In Round, we saw three teams that were not occupying a Playoff spot prior to the mid-March shutdown (Montreal, Arizona and Chicago) defeat teams whose spots had been quite secure (Pittsburgh, Nashville and Edmonton). And their collective successes in those series were no accident, either, as each team played fantastic Hockey and either got superb play from their goaltenders or saw an increase in scoring output (much of it from younger, up and coming players). Although the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a normal year are just as thrilling, I cannot stress enough how much of an added treat these round robin and play-in games were -- the action and intensity on the ice were fantastic, even if it took a handful of games for some teams to get their legs under them. While I'm certainly not an advocate of employing this format in future years, the 24 team setup that we were given this summer was a very nice change of pace and has worked far better than I anticipated.

But anyway, the field was eventually whittled down from the 24 we started with down to the traditional 16 team Stanley Cup Playoffs format; as I'm typing and editing this blog right now, some teams have already advanced to the Conference Semifinals. However, my point in writing this wasn't to tell you how much different this year is from others, but rather to give you an idea of both what's happening on the ice and what you might be seeing fans say on social media (a place where everyone is completely rational and no one overreacts whatsoever!). So, here's what I believe you should keep in mind if you're a Hockey newcomer. These bullet points aren't listed in order of importance, but rather in the order I thought of them:

  • Listen, every team's fan base thinks that the officials have it out for their team. You might see people post memes of an NHL ref with his stripes painted in a particular team's colors. You'll see someone with the username @CrosbyGOAT87 make some sort of comment like "tough to beat [insert team name here] AND the refs" or something along those lines. At the end of the day, though? None of it's true, because this isn't the NBA. NHL officials just...suck! And they suck just as much for your team as they do for the others. Every team has gotten royally screwed by bad officiating at one time or another, sometimes in a way that helps ultimately decide the outcome of a game. There's nothing sketchy going on, it's honestly just a coin flip on most nights whether your team is going to get the better end of it or not. Sometimes, officials will "let the boys play" and call very few penalties, while other times they'll call literally everything and you'll see about half a dozen Power Plays per team.

  • You might have noticed a decent amount of scrums after the whistle, whether it's following a normal stoppage in play or if it's at the actual end of a period. This is not some sort of string of random coincidences, it's just a pretty normal part of the game. There's usually some sort of scrum after the final whistle at the end of literally every period, you might as well just come to expect it. Typically, it's sparked by body contact that came approximately 0.2 seconds after play had stopped, someone finishing his check when others on the ice feel like he could have held up, stuff like that. You'll also see a ton of these "polite disagreements" around the net -- players HATE when you get too close to their goalie after the whistle, whether someone pokes at his glove hand once he's covered the puck, "snows him" while coming to a stop, etc.

  • You've also probably noticed a good amount of attempted shots on net being blocked by regular skaters. Let me tell you firsthand that these HURT LIKE A BITCH. Sometimes, you catch a shot directly in your pads and it's not quite as painful, but other times the puck catches you in between your pads or, God forbid, even right on bone. I've thankfully never been shot with anything worse than a BB gun, but being hit with a hard rubber puck going 90+ MPH often feels much worse. But anyway, yeah, NHL players literally throw themselves in front of slap shots, wrist shots or passes from opposing players on a very regular basis. So, if you see someone hobbling around the ice for most of their shift, there's a chance you missed them blocking a shot earlier. These players wear it like a badge of honor -- look up "Gregory Campbell 2013 Eastern Conference Finals Game 3" if you want to know what I mean.

  • If you haven't noticed by now, there's this absolutely heinous thing called the Coaches' Challenge that allows...well...coaches to challenge things. Here's what you need to know about the Coaches' Challenge: it stinks. If you search my Twitter history, there are a number of tweets saying that it should be abolished. The Coaches' Challenge was put in place with good intentions, but it's gotten to the point where it's most often used to review whether a player was offsides by like an inch heading into the offensive zone prior to a goal being scored. In these Playoffs alone, there have already been a number of goals overturned due to technicalities like that, stuff which doesn't even impact the outcome of the play. It's just dumb. Also, a lot of fans seem to think that, once again, the officials are out to get them when reviewing these goals as part of a Coaches' Challenge; in reality, goals are actually reviewed at the league office in Toronto. Officials view the same live feed that they're seeing in Toronto and listen for a ruling. Also, while we're on the subject of rules, you'll see people complain about the "Icing" and offsides rules from time to time and yes, they're not perfect. However, the NHL used to halt play for a "two line pass" (meaning that if you were in your own defensive zone and passed the puck past center ice to a teammate, the whistle would be blown. Trust me, it doesn't get any worse than that -- getting rid of that rule alone opened up play so much more, I couldn't imagine the modern NHL with it still in place.

  • Some of you might be asking "Where are the fights? I was told that people routinely beat the hell out of each other!" Well, they definitely still happen and if you stay tuned in, you're sure to see one. Fights tend to be more common in the regular season than the Playoffs, but you'll still see players drop the gloves in a Stanley Cup Playoff game, especially if one of them thinks his team is playing with no energy and needs a jolt of life. To be honest, it really depends on the year; sometimes there are plenty of fights in the Playoffs, other years they're far and few in between. But they're always awesome.

  • This next one is a pet peeve of mine, along with many other Hockey fans. I promise that we're not snobs when we say this, but we have to express our displeasure because it's so annoying for us to hear. We know that nobody thinks their team shoots the puck enough, we're WELL AWARE. But please, PLEASE don't yell "SHOOT" if your team is on the Power Play (or any other time that it has puck possession in the offensive zone for an extended period). I find these people extremely annoying, do not be one of those people. You can definitely think it, God knows that I do sometimes, but DON'T say it. Over-passing is definitely a thing, though; sometimes a team will get too cute with its puck movement and wind up squandering its offensive zone time without creating a quality scoring chance. But the guys behind the bench will tell them to shoot, you don't have to (plus, you know, the players can't hear you from your couch).

  • Now, for some terms you'll hear a lot but might not know what they mean yet:

    • Power Play: when a team draws a penalty, its opponent plays with 4 men on the ice instead of 5 for two minutes, unless the penalty is a double minor, major, etc.

    • Penalty Kill: Literally the opposite of the above; the team that's playing down a man is "killing the penalty" and can ice the puck without stoppage during this time

    • Hand Pass: If you use your hand to pass the puck to your teammate, play is whistled dead; you can only advance the puck with your stick or your skate (you cannot advance the puck into the net by distinctly kicking it, though)

    • Shorthanded Goal: As you may have guessed, this is when you score a goal while killing a penalty; there's nothing more demoralizing than giving one of these up

    • Goaltender Interference: If you physically prevent the goalie from having a chance to stop the puck, that's a no-no; you can screen the goalie, but can't make contact

    • High Stick (non-penalty version): This could be confusing to newer Hockey fans, as there is an actual penalty given out for making contact with another player with your stick while it's above the shoulders; this version, though, is if you use a high stick to play the puck, which will cause officials to blow play dead

    • Neutral Zone: The area between each team's defensive zones (or offensive zones, depending on how you look at it); center ice (the red line) is part of the neutral zone

  • While the above section contains a bunch of more formal terms, here's some commonly used Hockey lingo that you'll likely hear a lot during games:

    • "He's leaking" = This isn't as gross as it sounds; for some reason, this is what you say when a player is bleeding ("he caught a stick up high and now he's leaking")

    • "In the slot" = You'll hear this a lot; it's the area directly in front of the goalie in between each of the face-off circles (also referred to as the "scoring area")

    • "Gretzky's Office" = Some announcers say this to refer to the area directly behind the net; Wayne Gretzky used to set up a ton of goals and assists from there

    • "Along the half wall" = In the offensive zone (usually on the Power Play), a puck carrier will often set up in this area between the blue line and the end boards; he usually stands there while he waits for one of his teammates to get open

    • "Screen the goalie" = When you're in the offensive zone, often times a player will set up in front of the net and try to block the goalie's line of sight; as covered before, you can do this freely as long as you don't make contact with the goalie

    • "One Timer" = When a player takes a slap shot off of a teammate's pass without first stopping the puck and lining up his shot; sometimes, these are inaccurate

    • "Deke" = When a player attempts to "fake out" the opposing goalie by deceptively stick-handling; making the goalie think you're bringing the puck one way to attempt a shot on goal and then quickly taking it in a different direction

    • "Slapper" = Just a nickname for a slap shot

    • "Wrister" = Like above, just a nickname for a wrist shot

    • "Backhander" = A quick shot, usually from right in front of the net; it's essentially the reverse of a normal shooting motion and is meant to catch a goalie off-guard

    • "Snapshot" = Unlike the other shots mentioned above, a snap shot is much less common in Hockey; it's basically an abbreviated wrist shot that's supposed to combine the advantages of both the wrist shot and slap shot and is accomplished with a quick snap of a player's wrists while the puck sits still on the ice

    • "Goal Crease" = This is the blue painted area right in front of the net, where the goalie stands; the goalie is entitled to this area and cannot be touched there

    • "Pinch In" = When a defenseman abandons his normal position on the offensive blue line to attempt to keep the puck in the offensive zone; this is usually risky, as it leaves only one defenseman behind the play in case the puck escapes the zone

  • Okay, there's probably other lingo I didn't touch on there, but the stuff above is really the most important, in my opinion. Back to some other fun facts: the Stanley Cup is quite honestly the coolest trophy to win in all of sports, not to mention heavy as hell. Unlike the NBA, NFL and MLB, which produces a new trophy for its champion each year, you don't get to keep the Stanley Cup. Instead, the team that wins the Stanley Cup has the names of each player and coach engraved on it. Everyone gets to skate around the ice with the Cup after winning it, taking a lap around while lifting it over their heads before handing the Cup off to a new teammate. It's awesome. You get the Cup for a couple months before then giving it back to its "keeper," Phil Pritchard.

  • There are a TON of different ways you can be penalized in Hockey; the various infractions you can commit include: hooking, slashing, tripping, roughing, instigating, charging, boarding, cross-checking, delay of game, embellishment, elbowing, interference, high sticking, holding, unsportsmanlike conduct and too many men. Most of these are pretty self explanatory, but I'll touch on the very last one listed. "Too many men" is when a team has more than 5 skaters on the ice and one of those players plays the puck. Usually, this happens when a team mismanages its line change and it's very frustrating to coaches. Each team is guilty of this every blue moon.

  • We touched on Power Plays above, but depending on how well players are "behaving themselves," there are different types of Power Plays that you could see. There's your prototypical 5-on-4 advantage, where one player sits in the penalty box and a team has a slight advantage. However, if you take a second penalty during your existing penalty kill, your opponent will then have a 5-on-3, or two-man advantage. You can never have fewer than 3 skaters on the ice, so taking a third penalty would just extend the length of your opponent's 5-on-3 Power Play (believe it or not, this is not that infrequent of an occurrence). If, however, your team commits a penalty of its own while on the Power Play, then you could see 4-on-3 or 4-on-4 play until the respective players have all left the penalty box. It sounds more complicated than it actually is.

  • And the final point that I'll make in this blog today, which references one of the best nights in Twitter history: the goalie can say "f*ck it" and leave. What I mean by this is that, if a team is losing in the final minutes of a game, it will usually pull its goalie and replace him with a 6th skater to try and tie the score. A team can also pull its goalie if it's just drawn a penalty, as play is not blown dead until the team that committed the penalty touches the puck. Because play is going to be halted once they touch the puck, they can't score on your open net, making it safe to pull your goalie. About 4 years ago, an ordinary Twitter user by the name of "Tony X" was watching Hockey for the first time when he posted a tweet stating his amazement at the fact that the goalie could just randomly leave the ice. Fast forward to 2020 and Tony is now a die hard St. Louis Blues fan who tweets about Hockey more than almost any other sport. Honestly, he's a great example of how someone can suddenly become a rabid fan of the sport, even if you're in your 20's, 30's, whatever. It can become addicting very quickly.

Well, that's about it! You're pretty much all set now after reading this and I fully expect you to be a hardcore fan of this great sport by the time the Stanley Cup is awarded this October. I'm always chatting about Hockey on Twitter, so feel free to find me there (@MarkPiselli13) and we can talk about how awesome these Playoffs have been. You can also HEAR me talk some puck with my awesome line mates Jake and Ashleigh on the Snipe N' Celly Podcast (@SnipeNCellyPod on Twitter), so be sure to check that out as well. So, with all that being said..."as they say in Hockey...let's do that Hockey!"

- Mark


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