While this can sometimes be a convenient time to complain about what's wrong with the NHL and the Stanley Cup playoffs, we're here to tell you there's a whole lot right about the postseason, especially this season's version.
Yes, it may still be early, but there are a number of positive trends that can't be ignored, and several annoying habits that have not surfaced this playoff season.
The league wants its biggest stars performing under the brightest lights, and this year's playoffs include more of the NHL's most luminous headliners than any other playoff season in recent memory.
Fifteen of the league's top 16 scorers (and 18 of the top 20) are displaying their wares in the playoffs. Only Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk (No. 6) and Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis (No. 17) aren't playing. Each of the top six scoring defensemen were present at the start. The three Rookie of the Year finalists were present. And the major-category leaders among goalies were all present.
In terms of big-market appeal, or familiar playoff participants being part of the party, only Colorado and Dallas did not qualify. Canada is missing big markets in Toronto and Ottawa, but was still represented by three of its six franchises (Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary).
Is it my imagination or has there been far less whining about officiating thus far? Most of the complaining (Mike Keenan) has been more toward sending messages for the next game than anything else.
There haven't been the long, mind-numbing reviews to determine if a goal has been scored. Nothing drags a game down more than that. Maybe some of those are still in store, or maybe the league has become more efficient in communicating from the war room in Toronto to each venue.
Remember, too, how once the playoffs hit everyone became Academy-award winning actors? We see a lot less of players laying on the ice begging for a call. We're not entirely sure why that's the case. It's not like there's been a dramatic increase of diving calls. But a bit more integrity has definitely slipped into play, which is very nice to see.
The more-strictly enforced interference rules have the most to do with this, but there is far less axe-murdering going on in front of goalies in the postseason. It used to be defensemen could get away with almost anything to try and clear the crease in front. Now it's not nearly as hard for opponents to find a way to the front. The amazing thing is how teams forget the No. 1 way to score in the postseason is to create traffic and look for loose pucks in close.
Not sure how this happened either, but there wasn't a single back-to-back scheduling scenario during any of the eight first-round series. Playoff games are grueling and it never seemed fair when building availability forced teams to play on consecutive nights. Generally, the scheduling problems decrease as the playoffs progress, so maybe this will be the postseason with no back-to-backs.
While there have been a couple quick series, there also is potential for a couple first-round matchups to be classics – most notably Carolina-New Jersey, Calgary-Chicago and Anaheim-San Jose.
The Hurricanes and Devils might be the only long first-round series in the East. With two games decided in overtime and another representing the first in Stanley Cup history won at the horn of regulation, there has been no shortage of dramatics. This one has seven games written all over it.
No lead has been safe when the Flames and Blackhawks collide. If anyone thought Chicago's young roster would be intimidated by the playoff atmosphere, forget it. All the Blackhawks have done is rally every time they fall behind. The Flames are showing tremendous fortitude considering they've bounced back from losing the first two games, and they continue to battle injuries. Craig Conroy, Rene Bourque and Daymond Langkow are the latest to get dinged.
The series with the least amount of available ice definitely is unfolding in California. The Sharks and Ducks have had to battle for every inch out there, which is somewhat surprising because San Jose has an advantage in team speed over Anaheim.
The Ducks are doing a tremendous job of managing minutes for defensemen Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. The healthy return of Francois Beauchemin is the biggest factor there. That long overtime game that you just know is coming won't have an adverse effect on Anaheim. And when this series goes to six or seven games, the Ducks' best players will be as fresh as can be expected.
Now let's see if the playoffs can maintain that same fresh pace.