Olympic hockey great, but doesn't compare to NHL playoffs

JULIAN FINNEY/GETTY IMAGES T.J. Oshie is surrounded by Team USA players after a victory over Slovenia.
JULIAN FINNEY/GETTY IMAGES T.J. Oshie is surrounded by Team USA players after a victory over Slovenia.
Posted: February 19, 2014

THE KNOCKOUT games of the Olympic hockey competition are about to begin. Be prepared, as these are ritually accompanied by the knocking of the NHL in comparison to this great and glorious tournament. Flyers owner Ed Snider really is right - the NHL gets nothing out of the Olympics, unless you count the condescending grief.

You know how it goes - tons of talent concentrated on a few teams; big ice surface encouraging a more beautiful, less brutal game; how can you possibly watch a Flyers-Islanders game after this? The talent part is true. The rest is easy conversation.

Just know this: However good the Olympics turn out to be, the Stanley Cup playoffs are better.

Which is not to say that the elimination games will not be exciting, because they almost certainly will be. The swooning over the early-round game between the United States and Russia was a little much but, hey, that is all part of it. The whole T.J. Oshie shootout thing was a fun, unusual story, and when you throw a fun, unusual story into the middle of thousands of captive journalists, well, put it this way: If truth is the first casualty of war, then hyperbole is the first impulse of the Olympics.

The last time, in Vancouver, the gold-medal game between Canada and the United States was fabulous. They will be very fortunate this time to come up with a game as good - which will be hard, seeing as how Canada-USA would have to be a semifinal this time, based on the seedings.

But however it goes down, the players will fly home and rejoin their NHL teams and simultaneously try to decompress from the Olympic experience as they reintegrate with their NHL teammates. It will be disjointed for a while - it always is. It is just one of the downsides of Olympic participation for the NHL.

Come April, though, the best tournament in the world will begin anew, 8 weeks of magnificent hell, better than the Olympics could ever be, better because of the duration, and the history, and the physical intensity that sometimes borders on savagery.

That last part is what we need to talk about most of all. Whether it is smaller ice or more tolerant officiating or just rampant amorality when it comes to the pursuit of the big silver prize, is open for argument. But the Stanley Cup playoffs create these visceral thrills, game after game after game played upon the sharpest knife edge. It is the part that the Olympics cannot match - along with the routine familiarity with the players and the rivalries and the history, and the fact that the whole thing is played out over 2 weeks, and then another 2 weeks, and then another, and another.

You are going to tell me that it is a game of skill and flow, and that is true. But Stanley Cup hockey, at its best, also has that physically frightening element. This isn't about fighting, which can be kind of stupid sometimes and a public-relations distraction most times. This is about raw physical survival, and how far you are willing to take it.

The best thing I've covered in the last 5 years, and maybe longer, was the Flyers-Penguins playoff series in 2012. The Flyers won the first three games, lost the next two, then won the series in six games - but that shorthand does not begin to tell the story of big leads that evaporated, and a thrilling cascade of goal-scoring, and more.

The Penguins got down in the series, and one of their two great stars, Evgeni Malkin, was being tied in knots by Flyers rookie Sean Couturier, and Malkin just started laying people out and daring anybody to do anything about it. He was at the line or over the line - and you could not help but be riveted by his attempt to survive. That was just one part of it, and the whole business went on for 12 days before the Flyers finally ended it.

The story lines develop more fully, and robustly, in that amount of time. The physical toll means that the winners are also the best survivors.

No, each team does not have as much talent as Canada or the U.S. team has at the Olympics, but there is charm in that, too, in players and roles and hiding your flaws.

The Olympics are a burst, here and gone. The Stanley Cup playoffs are the ongoing reality, not swifter or higher, but better.

Email: hofmanr@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @theidlerich

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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