Sunday, March 30, 2014

Love/Hate Relationships Down The Stretch

It's an exciting time in the NHL season with two weeks to go before the playoffs as points become that much more valuable. The playoff picture is still blurry as teams battle just to get in or those that have already clinched jockey to secure home ice advantage. It's a great time to be a fan as you essentially ride a roller coaster of emotions each night of play. With the good comes the bad and most nights you'll find yourself following the score of a big game or shaking your head in disbelief as you root for a division rival to win. It's a love/hate relationship down the stretch for many reasons, but it's these emotions that make Spring hockey that much better.

Here are some of the love/hate relationships we have with the final stretch:

LOVE: Huge playoff implication games

Every night until the end of the regular season there will be plenty of these to go around. Scoreboard watching will be in full effect as must-wins and three point games take over our vocabularies. The best of these games will be when two teams battling for a playoff berth face off against each other. These are essentially playoff games and we could even see a repeat of that NYR/PHI shootout game on the final day of the season as Dallas and Phoenix go head-to-head in a game that could be a win-and-your-in game.

HATE: Draft lottery implication games

Sometime's you don't even know these games are being played as your eyes automatically skip over a Carolina/Florida boxscore, but they do have some importance. There's not much on the line in these games unless a player is trying to secure a performance bonus and all you can really hope for is that nobody gets seriously hurt. It's even worse being a fan of a lottery team as you actually cheer for them to tank for a better pick which is the ultimate gut punch if you're a diehard.

LOVE: When a team plays spoiler to a rival

If your team is already out you can still have some fun at the expense of a rival by ending their playoff chances. Of the bubble teams, each has a game or two against a fanbase that clearly hates them. Team's wake up for these games and even if you're playing a rival 20 points below you in the standings you know they're going to be coming after you. Gotta love ruining your sworn enemy's playoff hopes.

HATE: Cheering for rivals

Cheering for Montreal if you're a Toronto fan or Chicago if your team is Vancouver. It sucks, but it's needed as these rivals can help your team get into the playoffs by beating your direct competitors. These games can also fuel your hate for a rival if they dash your playoff hopes with a loss. Get ready to say "I can't believe I'm cheering for them" because it's that time of the year.

LOVE: When a player steps up down the stretch.

Case in point: Gustav Nyquist. The guy is on fire and is one of the top NHL scorers in the second half of the season with 22 goals and 12 assists in his 27 games since January 20th. No Zetterberg or Datsyuk? No worries, you have Gustav to lead you into the playoffs! Another youngin' who's stepped up down the stretch is Ondrej Palat of the Lightning who has made a strong Calder candidacy with 5 goals and 11 assists in the month of March as Tampa battles for home ice advantage in their likely playoff matchup against Montreal.

HATE: When a star player is injured.

Patrick Kane and Evgeni Malkin are biggies who have gone down with recent injuries and will remain out of action for some time. Hopefully they're back for the playoffs as both players are irreplaceable and past Conn Smythe Trophy winners. Even if they are just being shut down to heal and recover for playoff time it's a huge blow, especially for a fantasy hockey team currently in the playoffs. You want to see the best play and it's the time of the year where maintenance days become more common as team's do their best to heal before the playoffs.

LOVE: Seeing some youth get a chance

AHL call-ups and NCAA players being signed means you get to see some young kids make their NHL debuts. Coaches and GM's want to give these kids a chance to prove their development in the organization and audition for a potential roster spot next year. It's always fun to catch a glimpse of your team's prospects and hopefully they give you a glimmer of hope that next season will be better.

HATE: Seeing veterans farewell tours

We don't really hate these as much as they make us feel sad and old. Two seasons ago we said goodbye to Nick Lidstrom and this year Teemu Selanne is currently on his own tour as the 43-year-old hits up NHL cities for the last time. These games are a constant reminder that the The Finnish Flash is actually leaving us and it's hurting us deeply. Legends can't play forever, but we sure wish they could.

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