It's the best time of the year if you're a fan of hockey. The National Hockey League playoffs have begun, which means the intensity has skyrocketed, the speed of the game has reached a higher level, and the hitting has become harder and constant. It's that time of season when players will sweat, bruise and bleed for the right to have their names etched on the oldest and greatest trophy in North American team sports, the Stanley Cup.
But before we get to playoff predictions, it's a good time to talk about a subject that people who aren't true hockey fans love to talk about - fighting. Fighting has been a part of professional ice hockey since its inception, but now there are haters out there getting louder, calling for its elimination.
First of all, we all should know what fighting is. Fighting is not hitting someone in the head with a stick. In hockey it is wrong and always wrong to hit someone deliberately above the shoulders with a stick, and it guarantees a suspension.
Fighting is when two players choose to pair off, drop their gloves, stand toe-to-toe and skate and punch each other. It is violent, but compared to other sports it's a relatively mild confrontation.
In professional boxing, fighters absorb repeated blows to their heads for as long as 12 rounds, and sometimes die doing it. Hockey players wear helmets, fight for short periods of time, and don't die doing it.
In Ultimate Fighting and Pride Fighting, when one contestant hits the mat, the other guy can get on top and pound away on him. In hockey when one player falls to the ice, the referees step in and the fight is over.
In basketball and baseball benches and bullpens are emptied, and even coaches and fans will join fights. In hockey leaving the bench is an automatic 10-game suspension, and coaches and fans don't get involved.
Hockey is a relatively civil game played by men with respect for their sport, not by thugs and criminals. They should be allowed to play hockey the way it was always intended to be played. True hockey fans would appreciate that, and after all, that's who the game is played for.
Playoffs - One of the many things that make the Stanley Cup playoffs and hockey in general so great is unpredictability. Last year Carolina was a preseason longshot before winning the championship, and Edmonton reached the Finals as a No. 8 seed. This year both teams missed the postseason altogether. There is no such thing as home ice advantage in the playoffs, except in Game 7s. Any team can win it all.
After one night of action Wednesday, it appears that yes, it's going to be another wild playoff season. Three games were decided by one goal, with one in double-overtime and one amazingly in a quadruple-overtime.
First round predictions - Buffalo, New Jersey, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Vancouver, San Jose and Calgary will advance.
Stanley Cup - Anaheim over Buffalo.
TV - NBC will be televising the NHL regionally on the weekends, and if you are one of the 65 million people in America with access to the Versus channel, more games are available during the week. The biggest fans will pay for the Center Ice package and get every game.