The other day, I was walking past Andrew Peters’ house in Hamburg and found the former Sabres toughie in his driveway, checking off one of the items on his spring honey-do list.
“Are you watching the playoffs?” he asked.
Peters was talking about the NHL, of course, so my response took him by surprise.
The first round of the NHL playoffs was fabulous with three of the eight series lasting seven games. In hockey, it’s not unusual for high seeds to suffer first-round knockouts, so seeing three good teams pushed to the limit was hardly a surprise. This year was no different than others from the recent past.
Colorado, St. Louis and San Jose owned the second-, third- and fourth-best records in the Western Conference during the regular season before suffering early exits. Four of the top five teams in the East advanced. Tampa Bay had the third-best record in the conference before Montreal swept the Lightning.
The first round had plenty of storylines, as usual, with Ryan Miller and ex-Sabres playing for the Blues, winning the first two games against the Blackhawks before Patrick Kane led the defending champs to four straight victories. Los Angeles lost the first three games to San Jose before winning four straight.
Right when you think a team is ready to push its opponent off a cliff, along comes a goaltender with a safety rope. While Miller failed to save the Blues, Jonathan Quick gathered himself and almost single-handedly turned around the series against the Sharks. He was looking for his sixth straight win Monday.
For all the aggression and passion and drama that come with the NHL playoffs, the first round was almost boring when stacked against the NBA.
I’ve spent so much time over the previous 15 years covering hockey that I almost forgot how much I loved postseason basketball. There always has been a sense of disdain between the sports. It’s practically sacrilegious for people in hockey circles to admit they also enjoy basketball.
This gig may strip the fan from me when it comes to specific teams, but I’ll always be a big fan of sports. It’s all about competition in my book, and the joy comes from watching the best players in the world compete under pressure for high stakes. It’s true for any sport – except soccer, of course.
For years, the higher seeds in the first round of the NBA playoffs typically made quick work of the lower seeds. Last year, only two of the eight series included a lower seed dumping a higher one. In both cases, Chicago over Brooklyn and Memphis over the Clippers, it was a fifth seed beating a fourth.
Only one first-round series required seven games last year. Only three series throughout the entire postseason reached a seventh game, including the finals when the Heat beat the Spurs. This year, however, five series required seven games before deciding a winner in the opening round alone.
The better stories were coming out of the NBA. You know the first-round has captured our imagination when LeBron James leading the Heat to a sweep becomes a blurb when compared to the other series. Quick, without peeking, which team did Miami beat in the first round? Charlotte.
It was easy to forget with the storm surrounding the Clippers and their creepy owner, Donald Sterling, after his sleazy mistress, or “Silly Rabbit” or whatever bizarre nickname she gave herself, taped her sugar daddy making racist remarks. The Clippers protested their own owner and came together to win the final two games in an emotional series against the Warriors.
Take away the off-court drama, and it was still a great series.
Indiana, the top seed in the East, was coming apart against Atlanta before winning the final two games. San Antonio, which finished with the best record in the West, was in trouble against Dallas before winning Game Seven. And if the Rockets didn’t leave Damian Lillard open for a series-ending three at the buzzer, there would have been six series in the first round that reached seven games.
And look what happened in Toronto, affectionately known as the Centre of the Hockey Universe. The Leafs have been an embarrassment for years, although not quite as embarrassing as the Sabres. Fans turned their attention to hoops and became swept up by the Raptors, who took the Nets to within six seconds of the seventh game before falling. For a few days, it was a basketball town.
Seeing 10,000 fans packed into Maple Leaf Square for the Raptors makes any card-carrying Buffalo fan long for the playoffs. It has been seven years since the Sabres had 10,000 fans watching a postseason game from outside First Niagara Center and three years since they last reached the postseason.
Buffalo hasn’t won a playoff series since reaching the conference finals in 2007. The Bills have missed the postseason for 14 straight seasons and haven’t won a playoff game since 1995. You might say the playoffs have been a chore in Buffalo, which leaves plenty for chores between seasons for the rest of us.
So pardon me, Petey, for not knowing whether you were referring to hockey or hoops when you asked about the playoffs. It’s like I said. I’m wearing out my remote control watching both, and I can’t get enough of either. And it only gets better from here.