Finals fantasy: NHL, NBA go head to head

While the NBA is evolving into the soccer model of a few elite teams contesting the title, the NHL is content with its anyone-can-win philosophy

The NBA Finals feature the two best teams in the league, with star-studded lineups. The NHL Stanley Cup Final is a surprise with highly-rated Pittsburgh and wild card Nashville that finished in the middle of the playoff pack.

On the surface, you’d say the National Basketball Association got it right while the National Hockey League did something wrong. You want your final series, which both start this week, to be a showcase of the best and the early rounds to be appetizers for the big meal.

But, this season at least, you’d be wrong.

The NBA has always operated on building momentum through the early rounds. The lowest-rank seeds almost never beat the top teams (Golden State’s win over No. 1 Dallas in 2006 is a notable exception). But the early rounds provide just enough excitement to keep fans waiting until June for the final series. 

Until this year. The NBA needs a dramatic final to save what has been a highly disappointing post-season littered with double-digit blowout wins, teams giving up at halftime and stars delivering lacklustre performances. Only one opening-round series went seven games. The Toronto Raptors – Canada’s rooting interest – got by their opening round, then were filleted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in four straight.

The Golden State Warriors – the league’s glamour team after a 67-win campaign – went though the first three rounds without breaking a sweat. In going unbeaten so far, Steph Curry and his pals spotted the San Antonio Spurs a 25-point lead in the Western Final opener, then nonchalantly came back to win the game by two points. Viewers in the east could usually go to bed early, knowing that big leads held up.

The Cavaliers, Eastern Conference champs, likewise were almost unchallenged. They lost just one game in the first three rounds, casting aside opponents such as the Raptors like so many high school varsity squads. They were one bad quarter against Boston from making it a clean sweep. LeBron James, after coasting through the back half of the season, was a force of nature against flailing foes.

It’s been a disaster for bookies in Vegas as even the largest point spreads couldn’t keep public bettors from cashing in on favourites.

The NBA’s idea has always been to have the best teams meet in the final, not the first rounds of playoffs – and if form holds, this final series should be a classic. It better be, because TV networks won’t buy rollover playoffs forever. The competition got so unattractive that NBA TV analyst Charles Barkley announced (facetiously?) he was leaving the blowout Cleveland/Boston final game to go to his hotel to watch the Ottawa/Pittsburgh hockey game.

Speaking of the NHL, it was criticized heavily for letting its top seed in the Central – the Chicago Blackhawks – be eliminated in the first round by wild card Nashville. And other top squads disappeared early.

Minnesota and St. Louis – Nos. 2 and 3 in the Central – met in the first round with the Wild being beaten. In the East, Pittsburgh and Columbus – the No. 2 and No. 3 Metropolitan Division seeds – met in the opening round with the Blue Jackets getting the early summer vacation. Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals – the best NHL team in the regular season – were snuffed out by the Penguins in the next round.

Anaheim, everyone’s favourite after Chicago was defeated, barely got by Edmonton and then fell to the Predators in the West Final. This NHL parity – which we’ve decried before – produced a few Cinderellas in the Oilers, Senators and Preds. While the drama was high, the quality of the play was epitomized by the Senators, who played a numbingly conservative style reliant on goalie Craig Anderson to hold off opposition shooters.

The games were also kept close because referees did their annual spring disappearing trick, letting all sorts of mayhem go unpunished while zealously calling the obvious puck-over-the-glass penalties.

What the series lacked in form, however, they made up for in drama. Overtimes (27 so far, including Pittsburgh beating Ottawa in double OT in Game 7) and seventh games have provided compelling viewing. While NBA fans slept securely in the knowledge that games were over after three quarters, NHL fans had to wait until the wee hours of the night to be sure of a result.

Still, the NBA wishes it had these sorts of problems in the spring of 2017. The league is rapidly evolving to the soccer model with a few elite teams contesting the title with the rest of the rabble scrambling for crumbs. The ratings for the final series will be huge, no doubt justifying the philosophy of saving the best for last.

The NHL will content itself with its anyone-can-win philosophy. TV ratings will be dwarfed by the NBA. But the debate about which playoff format works will go unresolved.

Bruce Dowbiggin is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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