Why we love the Cup playoffs

No fans are better, or crazier, than NHL fans. Their playoff passion is proof. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Wednesday marks the start of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, nine weeks of hard-hittin', slap-shottin', five-holin', BIG SAAAAVE-in' goodness. The stakes are high, the beards are big and the prize is the greatest in all of sports, Lord Stanley's Cup. Every league becomes more captivating during the playoffs, but there is something about the NHL's postseason that sets it apart from the rest. Actually, there are 10 things ...

10. They keep it clean

The Stanley Cup playoffs are the best evidence that NHL hockey would survive, and thrive, without the barbaric, unenlightened fighting that interrupts play during the regular season. While I can't deny the rush of adrenaline I get when I see two big boys go at it on the ice, our collective knowledge of concussions and brain trauma prevents me from enjoying fisticuffs anymore.

When the postseason begins, the gloves stay on, as teams try to avoid giving the opposition any kind of advantage. Five long minutes on the penalty kill late in a game? That could be the difference between going on to the next round and going golfing. When it comes to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, beating up your opponent on the scoreboard is the best way to exact revenge for chip shots and chirps.

9. Cold steel on ice

The NBA has its dunks, the NFL its touchdowns and MLB its home runs -- all fine and good, but all done on solid ground. The men of the NHL are doing all of their spinning, shooting, twisting, hitting and diving on ice; they do it so effortlessly, you almost forget they're wearing skates.

And the allure of the ice isn't reserved solely for the game itself. Before the puck even drops, you get the smell of the rink. And when it's all over, the victors take the smoothest of victory laps with the Stanley Cup hoisted high, with family members scooting out onto the ice to join the party.

8. Fantastic finishes

A very wise, handsome man (who I happen to share a mortgage with) once said, "The last minute of an NBA game is the longest hour of your life." Fouls, replays and timeouts often make the end of a pro basketball game a strategic, nonspontaneous affair, all herky-jerky and drawn-out. Hockey teams, meanwhile, get just one timeout per game and avoid late penalties with all their might. So while the clock stops over and over in the waning moments of a close NBA game, it just keeps running in the NHL. A goalie will get yanked, the losing team will send a flurry of shots at the net and the frenzied, uninterrupted finish will have every fan on the edge of her seat 'til the clock hits zero.

7. 'Do the right thing

Playoff beards get all the glory (and deservedly so), but postseason players sport some seriously spectacular 'dos, as well. The Sharks' Brent Burns rocks the "Encino Man" Cro-Magnon look, while Henrik Zetterberg works the Don Draper slickback. And, every postseason, Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane steals the show with his mullet-and-racing-stripes look.

6. Can't predict hockey

The New England Patriots won three Super Bowls in four NFL seasons. The Red Sox, Giants and Cardinals have won six of the past eight World Series. The Spurs, Lakers and Heat have won 12 of the past 15 NBA titles. A threepeat in the NHL? Don't bet on it. The NHL playoffs are the least predictable of any major sport. Any given year, a team can get hot and win it all (the past 14 Stanley Cups have been won by 11 different teams).

So, while Miami Heat fans can ignore the early rounds of the NBA playoffs, knowing they can catch their guys in the finals again, hockey fans are glued to every minute of every round, knowing full well anything can happen.

5. No pain, no gain

Hockey players are legendary for their toughness. Every time a player takes a puck to the face and keeps on playing, or skates right through a crushing hit, a meme pops up on the internet insisting that NHL players are tougher than their counterparts in the NBA or MLB. The comparisons are silly, but the toughness that inspires them is undeniable.

Lost teeth, stitched-up cheeks and broken bones -- guys will play through it all when Lord Stanley's Cup is on the line. Common sense is forgotten, any thoughts of future pain or suffering are pushed aside. Every second of every minute of every game, these players are giving it everything.

4. Chipping in

NHL fans are a special breed. They are as passionate as any football or basketball fan you'll meet, but they're edgier, rawer. Hockey is the fourth-most popular sport in our country, and many diehard NHL fans have a chip on their shoulder about the league's perceived second-class status.

This chip makes hockey fans the craziest of the bunch. They're in love at first sight (the glowing, gorgeous sheet of ice, the boards trembling after being punished with a big hit), and first sound (the "sssshhh" of blades cutting into the ice, the "ping!" of a puck striking the post). Throughout the season, you might see a few celebs sitting rink-side or living the suite life and occasionally spot stars rockin' NHL gear in the tabloids, but hockey isn't the sport for bandwagoners or spotlight-seekers. The Stanley Cup playoffs don't have the feel of the Super Bowl, where 75 percent of the crowd is corporate. The fans at these playoff games are the octopus-smuggling, anthem-cheering sort. Just the sort you wanna be near when your team wins it all.

3. Grin and beard it

Like counting a tree's rings to see how old it is, you can gauge the success of an NHL team by the lushness of its players' beards. When the postseason begins, the guys toss their razors and refuse to shave until their team has been eliminated. The result is a rink full of very large men with beards like Grizzly Adams, or that hipster always bugging you about joining the co-op.

The beards aren't just burly and intimidating, they also represent the sacrifice these men have made to get to the postseason. It's an itchy and bushy reminder of how far they've come. And, for some -- cough, cough, Sidney Crosby -- a slightly fuzzy, nearly invisible reminder of their youth.

2. Shake it off

Last season, the Bruins suffered one of the most brutal championship losses of all time, blowing a 2-1 lead with less than two minutes to play in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. The Blackhawks scored twice in 17 seconds to steal a 3-2 win and hoist the Cup for the second time in four seasons. Before the Bruins could escape the ice to mourn their loss, they first lined up and shook the hands of the men who just defeated them.

The handshake line at the end of every NHL playoff series is a lesson in sportsmanship, professionalism and respect -- for the game and one's opponents. One minute, players are beating the life out of each other, and the next, they are pressing palms, hugging and exchanging (mostly) genuine words of admiration and goodwill. It's a beautiful dichotomy.

1. Lord Stanley's Cup

The stories, the names, the history. Lord Stanley's Cup is the best trophy in all of sports -- and it's not even close. Those hunks of metal in the other major sports barely even qualify as trophies when compared to the Cup. It's the perfect prize for a perfect postseason.