Parity at root of great game action

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- When the NHL went to a salary-cap system seven years ago, the hope was to achieve what it termed "competitive balance."

That's a corporate-spin term for what us blue-collar folks call "parity."

Well, seven years out, parity has never been more real in the NHL.

Pittsburgh and Vancouver were popular picks to contend for the Stanley Cup, and rightfully so. That they're both down 3-0 in their respective series is surprising, yes, but hardly shocking.

Not in this league, not anymore.

The Flyers have handled the Penguins all year long. The Kings were division leaders entering the final week of the regular season until dropping to eighth on the final game of the season. They're hardly your normal eighth seed.

Then again, what is an eighth seed anymore?

"It used to be, for the eighth seed, everything had to go right just to get in," Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock mused the other day. "Now you look at eighth seeds, and it's like three-quarters of a season went wrong for them to get the eighth seed. It's just a different mentality now."

For example, Hitchcock said, he remembers when he coached in Columbus a few years ago, what was a more traditional No. 8 seed.

"Everything went right for four months for us to get to 92 or 93 points," he said. "You don't find that anymore. That's just how good the teams are right now."

To Hitchcock's point, the Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks, just like the Kings, are great examples of teams that were expecting to contend for first place in their respective conferences but struggled this season and ended up as low seeds. But the fact is, all three of those teams have as good a shot at winning a series as any higher-ranked teams.

"To me, there's nine teams in each conference that are so close that I think that's why you see these lower seeds going like hell right now," Hitchcock said. "I honestly believe they think they can win the Cup. You've got 16 teams that honestly believe -- and it's not fake -- they honestly believe they can win the Cup. … It's just what it is now."

Is there a better way to prove this parity than to look at the road record of teams so far in these playoffs? The road team is 14-8 through Monday night's games in the NHL playoffs, good for a .636 winning percentage.

This isn't your father's NHL.

"After the lockout, because of the proximity of the teams from a salary style, things changed dramatically," Hitchcock said. "I think the pressure on the home team, the little advantage you expect creates pressure, creates tension, creates tightness. You see teams defend when there's tightness and it looks like you've got five guys staring at the puck. There's so much tension early in a series [at home]. … I don't think there's an advantage now playing at home like there was before."

It's one thing for fans and media to still be clinging to pre-lockout perceptions about the NHL. But it's another for players themselves to still believe them, and in some cases I think that's the case.

I really believe some players -- not all, but some -- on No. 1- or No. 2-seeded teams put undue pressure on themselves to act like "favorites," even though the reality is that very little separates their team's talent level from that of their opposition.

Here in San Jose, I think the Blues' players did a good job of understanding just that. Credit Hitchcock for that. The Blues didn't view the Sharks as a No. 7 seed. They saw them as back-to-back conference finalists, a veteran team to be feared and respected. With that mindset from the beginning, it eliminated undue pressure on the younger Blues to act or behave any differently than what the situation really called for: one really good hockey team playing another really good hockey team. Nothing more, nothing less.

And that, my friends, is the true reality of the 2012 NHL playoffs.