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Welcome, Spring — And More Importantly, Playoff Hockey


After the marathon, Boston sports fans will still have playoff hockey. If you pay attention to the National Hockey League, then you probably heard or maybe even said that there's nothing like the playoffs. And judging from the start of this year's playoffs, it's not an exaggeration. Here to talk more about it is sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. And, Stefan, the NHL playoffs began on Wednesday, but just how exciting have these first games been?

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: They've been great. Seven games, so far, five decided by one goal. Two went into overtime. Last night in St. Louis, the Blues needed three overtimes to beat the defending champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. In the other overtime game - this was really cool - Colorado's head coach, Patrick Roy, the Hall of Fame goaltender, pulled his goaltender in favor of an extra skater with three minutes to go against Minnesota. You usually don't see that until the last minute of a game. Colorado tied it up with 14 seconds left and then won in overtime.

CORNISH: And then here we are, close games at the outset of the playoffs. And what does that say about a team's chances of winning the Stanley Cup?

FATSIS: Well, playoffs in all sports are quirky - small samples size and all that - but in hockey, with a fast-moving puck, lots of bounces and deflections, they can be even quirkier. The Boston Bruins had the best record in the regular season, but only eight of the last 28 regular season champs went on to win the cup. The randomness factor could be even higher this year because of a new March Madness-style format for these playoffs. The NHL isn't reseeding the teams after each round the way it used to, so there are going to be some inequitable pairings and some good teams eliminated early.

CORNISH: And then as the playoffs progress, usually, people start to focus on a hot goaltender, right, that'll carry his team to victory. But is there any truth in that line?

FATSIS: Well, a goaltender's performance is definitely crucial to how a team performs in hockey. What turns out to be not be true is that you can predict which goaltender is going to be hot. There's a terrific post by Neil Paine on the website fivethirtyeight.com about the unpredictability of goaltending. Advanced metrics show that there's little correlation year-to-year in a goaltender's performance and even less correlation between the regular season and the playoffs.

CORNISH: Stefan, we're not going to see it during this NHL Playoffs, but there is this idea gaining some attention that could change the look of the ice and also help make hockey safer. Tell us more about it.

FATSIS: It's called the Look-Up Line. It's a 40-inch-wide orange strip painted on the ice along the boards, sort of like the warning track in baseball. In hockey, it would give skaters a visual cue when they're approaching the boards, so they could keep their heads up, don't check somebody from behind, that sort of thing. The intent is to reduce the risk of head and neck injuries from crashes into the boards.

And the idea came from a 24-year-old former player named Tom Smith from Massachusetts. He suffered two separate paralytic injuries on the ice. USA Hockey, the governing body for amateur hockey, is voting in June on a proposal that would make this mandatory in all of its rinks.

CORNISH: Finally, Stefan, I understand there's a remarkable college hockey story you want to mention, a tiny school that skated to a Division One championship?

FATSIS: Union College won the men's Division One championship. Union is in Schenectady, New York. The enrollment is 2,200 students. It doesn't give out athletic scholarships. Chester A. Arthur went there. But last weekend, the Dutchmen beat Boston College and then the University of Minnesota, which has 48,000 students, to win their first NCAA title. Yesterday, they got to ride on fire trucks - like kids - in a parade from campus to City Hall in Schenectady, where the team received a key to the city.

CORNISH: Aw, pretty cool. Thanks, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis is a panelist on Slate's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. He joins us most Fridays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.