Springtime in Calgary is a great time of year. It typically features sunshine, the end of school and slightly less snow than usual. It also signals the onset of the National Hockey League's playoffs, which have featured the Calgary Flames for 19 of their 27 seasons in the NHL. Even during the years the Flames miss the playoffs, though, the NHL's post-season stands as the best in professional sports.
The NHL playoffs have grown in size as the league has grown in teams, but settled at 16 teams in 1980 and has stayed that size even as the league added nine more teams. The current playoff format, seeding the top-eight teams in each conference based on division winners and the best regular season records, was adopted in 1994. The benefit of the system, as opposed to the previous division-centric system, is that it has provided a much wider variety of first-round playoff matchups. Under the divisional system, the Flames played such teams as Vancouver (four times), Winnipeg (three times), and Los Angeles (three times) in the first round. The results of the new system are skewed a bit due to the Flames' inability to make the playoffs throughout the late '90s, but they've never played the same team more than twice in the first round.
Hockey's playoffs are also noteworthy for the fact that there are no byes into subsequent rounds. Unlike the National Football League and Canadian Football League post-seasons, everybody has to win the same amount of rounds and games to win the championship. Regular season standings are still important, but they're used to pit the best teams against the weaker playoff qualifiers.
Most of all, the winner of the NHL playoffs win the oldest trophy in major professional sports, the Stanley Cup. Competed for annually for over 110 years, the Stanley Cup has grown in prestige over the years due to the history of the trophy and the sheer difficulty involved in winning it. It should also be noted that the champions of the NBA and Major League Baseball receive a new trophy every year, while the Stanley Cup has been carted around for over a century--albeit with a pair of duplicates created to tour and appear at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The NHL is far from perfect: some of the rules don't make sense, there are too many teams in areas that probably shouldn't have hockey teams, the season is too long and the playoffs end in Jun. Nevertheless, the league has all-but-perfected how to run the post-season. By the end of four rounds of pulse-pounding playoff action, there's little doubt in the minds of fans that, regardless of skates in creases or disallowed goals, the team that wins the Stanley Cup is definitively the best team in hockey. The other major sports leagues in North America should be so lucky.