Parity, or at least the perception of it, has long been a staple of the NHL playoffs. In sports with less scoring and thin margins, underdogs can gain the upper hand more easily than in sports with a lot of scoring.
(I'll pause here and note that the NFL's gift is figuring out how to have it both ways. By awarding six-eight points for a touchdown and conversion instead of just one point, scores are inflated. A game that finishes 28-21, for instance, is really 4-3 when considered a different way. But the NFL has a similar margin for error as the NHL and therefore a similar amount of playoff parity).
The NHL playoffs have often stood in stark contrast, though, to the NBA playoffs when it comes to this subject. Basketball teams routinely top 100 points, and even though those baskets are scored one-three points at a time, there are still a lot of them. With more scoring, the better team has a better chance to ultimately prevail.
This has tended to make the NBA playoffs fairly predictable in past years, particularly in comparison to the NHL. In the NHL, for instance, the Stanley Cup has been won just once in the last 10 seasons by a team that had the best record in its conference (Chicago in 2012-13). The Kings won in 2012 and 2014 as a No. 6 and No. 8 seed, respectively. In the same time span, the NBA Finals champ was a No. 1 seed seven times. Only one NBA champion from 1970-present — the sixth-seeded Rockets in 1995 — has been lower than a No. 3 seed.
That's what has made the NBA and NHL playoffs so fascinating so far this year. There is still a lot of parity in the NHL — more than in past years and more than in the NBA — but underdogs are also having their day in basketball.
Entering Tuesday night, lower seeds in the NHL playoffs were 13-11. In the NBA, they were 4-6 — including the Clippers' stunning comeback win over top-seeded Golden State after trailing by 31 points on Monday.
Making those numbers even more impressive: Most of the work in the NHL and all of it in the NHL has come on the home court/ice of the higher seed, since in both leagues those seeds start series with two home games. All NHL series were three games deep through Monday, while NBA series were either one or two games in.
The most shocking example in both leagues, of course, involves Columbus's 4-0 series sweep over Tampa Bay in the NHL. The Lightning finished the regular season with 128 points — 21 more than any other team in the league and 30 more than Columbus.
That said, every team in the NHL Eastern Conference playoffs had at least 98 points this season. And 1-8 in the West were only separated by 17 points. There are quality teams and/or tight matchups throughout.
In the NBA's Western Conference, 1-8 were separated by just nine games this year — Golden State at 57-25 and the Spurs plus Clippers both at 48-34. The bigger surprise in that league is that two of the upsets so far came from the East, with the Nets and Magic (both 42-40) beating the 76ers (51 wins) and Raptors (58 wins), respectively.
The net result is that both the NHL and NBA playoffs feel as wide open in tandem as I can recall when it comes to determining a champion. We'll see if the same level of parity is still in play when the winners are finally crowned in June.