The NHL and the rest of the hockey world may not receive the attention many national sports do, but it is one of the most competitive sports in the world.
When the regular season transitions into the playoffs, however, the NHL ventures into a realm of physicality, sacrifice and perseverance that is rare to find in other sports, making it the greatest competition in sports.
The 2011 NHL Playoffs are only a game old and this concept already holds true. What conspires each time two teams take the ice is nothing short of an intense two-and-a-half hours—sometimes more—where the team that sacrifices the most and pushes it the hardest prevails.
Some may compare it to other sports, but it would severely undermine the essence of hockey that makes the sport what it is.
Here's why playoff hockey is the greatest competition in sports.
Laura Falcon is a Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Follow her on Twitter or email her at email@example.com with any comments or questions.
Going from regular-season hockey to playoff hockey is similar to flipping a switch.
The focus of the regular season is to build momentum and create a winning environment through positive attitude, team cohesion and consistency. Come playoff time, everything is tested and skill is at the top of the list.
Every little moment matters in the playoffs, so players become more attuned to their actions, since one bad move or a poor pass could be the difference between a win or a loss. This attention to detail shows up in how the players play the game and is largely why playoff hockey showcases the best kind of hockey.
Essentially, these players know how much each shift counts and can't afford to take it easy at any point. As a result, each shift is chock-full of impressive hockey skill one would not normally see in the regular season.
Hockey isn't just a technical or physical game. It also relies heavily on emotion.
What makes the emotional aspect different in the NHL playoffs is the amount of control necessary so a game doesn't turn into a line brawl.
The emotion in a hockey game can come from just about anything: a questionable hit, an exchange of slashes before a faceoff and watching the other team take a 2-0 lead in the span of 30 seconds. The fact that hockey is a game of ebb and flow where anything can happen in between whistles makes it more difficult for players to control their emotions.
In the playoffs, that breaking point is reached more often and quicker because of what is on the line. This is why we see more intense scrums after whistles and hear about more chirping between the players' benches.
The close proximity of the players to the opposition along with the regularity of "play continuing" after the whistle also play a huge hand in that.
This explains why playoff games are so much more intense than regular-season games. Players are doing everything in their power to get the opposition off their game, keeping in mind that the cooler heads always prevail.
Overtime in the NHL playoffs becomes the most stressful time for both a team and its fans, largely because mistakes decide the winner and loser.
Not to mention how common it is to see teams take overtime into the next morning.
Overtime becomes a period of uncertainty where anything can happen at any time, an uncertainty that is far greater than any sport because of how quickly it can end. Players have to be psychologically prepared for the uncertainty that the game might last five minutes or five periods.
With that in mind, they also can't let the emotion of the pressure affect the way they play their game, maybe in hopes of getting the OT over as soon as possible.
Looking at the previous slide, overtime carries a high octane emotion that comes from the understanding that the game ends with the next goal or the game will not end at all. Of course, fans of the game won't complain because it usually means high-caliber hockey will follow.
Because of the 82-game season, teams can build a familiarity with each other, especially inter-division rivals who play each other six times in a season.
If these teams face each other in the playoffs, it isn't an average series. It's one built on history and it's never good. Maybe there's a bad hit that must be avenged or the previous series between the two ended in a clean sweep.
The addition of unfinished business always adds a nice flavor to a seven-game series. Winning the series is no longer the only thing at stake.
The NHL playoffs showcase a tremendous amount of fight between opposing teams, but just as important is how much the players fight for their teammates.
How much are they willing to do for each other?
One of greatest unique aspects of the game of hockey is no other sport asks players to jump in front a puck catapulting through the air at 80 miles per hour, sometimes faster, to block a shot for a screened goalie. No other sport also asks players to protect their teammates like hockey.
It becomes a story of sacrifice. Who's going to lay it all on the line to get the win?
The examples of what players have done to prevent a loss is mind-blowing. In the Pittsburgh Penguins/Tampa Bay Lightning series, Bolts winger Marty St. Louis caught a stick in his teeth that later required a double root canal. However, he continued the game despite the incredible damage to his teeth, knowing that his presence on the ice was more important than his own comfort.
You don't see that in other sports, but in hockey, this is what is expected of players if they want a chance to win the Stanley Cup.
In most major sports, the playoffs are about winning one game and moving on to the next round.
Not in the NHL playoffs. It becomes a race to four wins.
Many people may see this as easier than a one-game series because one poor showing won't send a team home. In fact, three losses won't even send a team home.
Instead, it becomes more difficult. When you think about it, being able to put everything on the line for one game takes a huge amount of pressure off both teams. NHL teams have to keep in mind that throwing the body around carelessly to create turnovers won't help the team in the long run.
Then there's the factor of going down two games and finding a way to maintain composure to tie the series in the next two games when the location changes.
Meanwhile, all of this is happening after a grueling 82-game season where all of the players are playing through some kind of injury. With the additional physicality and overall intensity of the playoffs, the wear and tear on the body is unlike any sport.
If the seven-game series is the most intense type of series in sports, then Game 7 must be a doozy, and it is.
Every factor I have mentioned in this slideshow plays an integral role in winning Game 7 in the NHL playoffs. In those 60 minutes and whatever time in necessary after, everything is on the line and players are willing to do whatever it takes to win.
They have to block shots, they have to take the awkward hit into the boards, they have to make a diving play to knock the puck off the stick of the opposition on a breakaway.
They have to do everything. Otherwise, they will lose.
It's especially difficult because players are playing after a mentally and physically exhausting six games on top of any other previous series.
Game 7 is the quintessential moment in sports, and there is no game in sports that demands more of players in that moment.