A year ago the National Hockey League was all doom and gloom as a bitter feud between the players and owners created a lockout that eliminated the entire season. Hockey fans were powerless and disgusted, having to turn to needlepoint, basket-weaving, and even the NBA playoffs for entertainment.
But as it turned out, that one year off was the best thing that could have ever happened to hockey. In their new agreement the NHL brilliantly decided to improve its game in order to bring back its fans. The result is competition that appeals not only to true hockey fans, but a sport that managed to produce its highest attendance figures ever.
Gone are all the grabbing, clutching and hooking that slowed down the league's best players, as obstruction penalties are now strictly enforced. Two-line passes have been legalized, and goaltenders have been further limited in equipment size and where on the ice they can touch the puck. Numerous other rules changes also aided in the fact that there has been much more scoring, and many more comeback victories.
Overall, fans have been treated to more equal competition, with the new salary cap especially helping the mostly cash-strapped Canadian teams. More division games were also scheduled, fueling rivalries. And best of all, the NHL got rid of the dreaded tie, instead deciding regular season games after overtime with shoot-outs.
Yes, the NHL is doing very well for itself and its fans.
The only possible real problem for hockey fans is for those trying to find the games on television. Some games are on NBC, Fox Sports, and as long as you are one of the 64 million people in the United States with access to the Outdoor Life Network, you can watch hockey there. OLN is an excellent network for sports fans that like not only hockey, but also bull riding, the Tour de France, last Monday's Boston Marathon, etc. Die-hard hockey fans can also subscribe to NHL Center Ice, and receive all of the playoff games.
Stanley Cup playoffs - There is nothing like playoff hockey. It's fast, physical and extremely intense. Shoot-outs no longer apply as overtimes last until someone scores. Games begin today.
Predictions - When making picks throughout the NHL playoffs, the most important thing to pay attention to is goaltending. Hot goalies have the ability to carry their teams on their shoulders and create huge upsets.
First round - At least two lower seeded teams should advance, but we'll pick only San Jose here.
Western Conference - Detroit over Edmonton in 5; Dallas over Colorado in 5; Calgary over Anaheim in 6; San Jose over Nashville in 6.
Eastern Conference - Carolina over Montreal in 6; New Jersey over the New York Rangers in 6; Buffalo over Philadelphia in 6; Ottawa over Tampa Bay in 7.
Stanley Cup Champion - Of the eight teams picked to advance, it would be no surprise if either of them hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup, but the prediction goes to New Jersey. The Devils are the hottest team coming in with 11 straight wins, and they have the best goalie in Martin Brodeur who has already won 3 cups.
Here are predictions for the first round of the (yawn) National Basketball Association playoffs, which begin Saturday.
Western Conference - San Antonio over Sacramento in 6; Dallas over Memphis in 5; Los Angeles Clippers over Denver in 7; Los Angeles Lakers over Phoenix in 6.
Eastern Conference - Detroit over Milwaukee in 5; Miami over Chicago in 7; New Jersey over Indiana in 7; Washington over Cleveland in 6.
NBA Finals - The Western Conference team has won 6 of 7 championships, with Detroit two years ago the one that broke that string. San Antonio has won two out of three, and three out of seven titles.
Prediction - (yawn) San Antonio over Detroit.