In the middle of April, with deliciously warm days and baseball finally getting in full swing, hockey simply is not on the radar.But much to the contrary, the NHL playoffs are upon us. And oh boy, what a post season it has been so far.Between unbelievable upsets, buzzer-beaters for overtime and the utter amount of overtime games that have take place thus far, the Stanley Cup playoffs are quickly turning into an event that shouldn’t be missed.Here are a few reasons why.No frontrunnerThrough Saturday only two matchups had a 2-0 lead – both in favor of the underdog.Heading into the playoffs, Vancouver was widely expected to be playing for the title, earning the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference after finishing the regular season at a 51-22-9 clip – the best regular season record in 2011-12. But the Canucks couldn’t seem to get enough offense going their first two games, taking a 4-2 loss in both game one and two to the Los Angeles Kings.Similarly, the Penguins were also a favorite for the cup before the postseason was underway, and yet through the first two games, they were foiled twice by Flyers’ comebacks. Game two was especially concerning for Pittsburgh after it allowed seven goals over the course of the second and third period, giving Philadelphia an 8-5, game two victory and a 2-0 lead at the time. Heading into the playoffs with the most imposing offensive front between Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin the Penguins looked impressive, but the duo was all but silenced through those first two games, which coupled with a shocking lack of defense, rendered the Penguins socially awkward.Every other series that played two games through Saturday ended in a series tie.The New York Rangers, who earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, couldn’t close out game two against an Ottawa Senators team they should have easily handled. With just over four minutes left in regulation, Senators left winger Nick Foligno slapped in a rebound, beating Ranger goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to send the game into overtime. Lundqvist – who is largely considered the best netminder in the league this season – couldn’t fend off the revived Senators for long as they evened the series at 1-1 off a Chris Neil backhanded goal.It may only be a few games into each series, but so far it is safe to throw any predictions out the window as no team has stood out far and above the rest.Hockey essentials: fights and overtimeOne thing that certainly sets hockey apart from every other major sport is the fighting. And the playoffs have had no shortage of fights.For example, in the Rangers-Senators game Saturday night, both teams lost a player to game misconduct a mere 2:15 into the first period.Ottawa’s Matt Carkner hunted down New York’s Brian Boyle (in retaliation for an incident in game one), which resulted in Carkner and Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky being sent to the locker room for the remainder of the game.On his way out, Dubinsky overturned a Gatorade cooler out of pure frustration in a move that showed his deep disagreement with the refs.Just about every matchup – whether a deep-rooted rivalry or not – has ended up in fisticuffs on numerous occasions, rendering this post season one of the most high-strung affairs the sports world has seen in quite some time. (Although the Indians-Royals bench-clearing brawl Saturday night could give the NHL an infinitesimal run for its money.)But beyond the tantamount of fights that’s making these playoffs more intense and interesting than ever, the games are closer than ever before.Through Saturday, out of 15 games played, seven went into overtime – two of which went into double over time. Only the Kings-Canucks, Predators-Red Wings and Devils-Panthers avoided overtime play, as of Saturday.Badgers everywhereDespite not laying claim to its own NHL team, Wisconsin is well represented with 10 players across seven different teams.Recent Badgers forward Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh – who both skated with Wisconsin in its 2010 national championship run – are both with the New York Rangers, who currently face the Ottawa Senators and McDonagh’s former UW roommate, forward Kyle Turris (’07-’08). The most recent Badger to leave for the NHL, forward Craig Smith along with defenseman Ryan Suter (’03-’04), currently hold a 2-1 series lead after Sunday’s win with the Nashville Predators over the Detroit Red Wings.St. Louis Blues goaltender Brian Elliott, who anchored Wisconsin’s 2006 national championship team, squares off with his former teammate, forward Joe Pavelski and forward Brad Winchester (’99-’03) and the San Jose Sharks.Finally, defenseman Dave Drewiske (’05-’08) and the Kings are on a strong upset run against the Vancouver Canucks, while forward Jack Skille (’05-’07) and the Florida Panthers are looking to do the same against the New Jersey Devils.Essentially, if you have no current NHL loyalties, picking a team based on your favorite Badgers isn’t a bad idea, especially given how tight the playoffs are this year.Overall, the intensity of this year’s playoffs, even a few games in, is too palpable to ignore. With such a tight race, it’s currently a free-for-all – any team currently has as good of a chance as the next for the Stanley Cup.Kelly is a junior majoring in journalism. Which former Badgers have the best chance for the cup? Let her know on Twitter @kellymerickson or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Manager Brad Ausmus conceded it’s a difficult balance to allow for Cozart to find himself while still using their best lineup.“You want him to get back to the Zack Cozart he was, but we still have to win games,” Ausmus said.Ausmus said Cozart will start Saturday, against another right-hander.Cozart said it was unfortunate he got hurt just as he was starting to swing the bat better. Although the hits weren’t falling, he had been hitting balls much harder late in April than he was at the beginning of the month.Cozart, who missed the second half of last season because of a torn labrum in his left shoulder, said he doesn’t believe that’s had any impact on his hitting. He did, however, also miss about half of the Cactus League schedule with a calf injury. Newsroom GuidelinesNews TipsContact UsReport an Error “Spring training was cut short for me,” he said. “Last season was cut short. It’s been a little while for me to just get out there and just play for three or four months to get in a groove. I was swinging the bat a lot better before I hurt my neck.”The chance at everyday at-bats still doesn’t seem to be there, but hits in all three games in Detroit were an encouraging sign.“He actually swung the bat pretty well,” Ausmus said. “He hit some balls hard in Detroit. He’s moving in the right direction.”2K BALL UPDATEEly Hydes, the Tigers fan who caught the ball from Albert Pujols’ 2,000th RBI on Thursday, said on Friday night that he had a change of heart and wanted to give the ball to Pujols. Pujols, however, said that the gesture is unnecessary.“I heard that the guy wanted to give it back, but he can keep it,” Pujols said. “I said what I had to say yesterday. I think he deserves it. He’s a fan. Or he can give it to the Hall of Fame.”Hydes left the ballpark after refusing several offers of memorabilia exchanges from the Tigers and Angels. He initially said he wanted to keep the ball, rather than try to sell it.“I slept on it,” Hydes told The Detroit News. “All I ever wanted was to sleep on it. I slept on it and I woke up and I think (Pujols) is a class act. He’s not my player, he’s not my guy, I don’t deserve the ball. I reconsidered. One-hundred percent, I’m either going to give it to Pujols or to the Hall of Fame.”ALSOFletcher came into Friday’s game leading the majors with a ratio of one strikeout for every 22.6 at-bats. The last player to finish a season with a ratio of 20.0 at-bats per strikeout over 500 or more at-bats was Placido Polanco in 2005, who struck out once every 20.04 at-bats. …The Angels requested release waivers on Peter Bourjos, who had been designated for assignment Tuesday. Bourjos was 4 for 44 in his second stint with the Angels, who originally drafted him and brought him to the majors for his first four seasons. …Andrew Heaney (elbow inflammation) pitched three innings in a game in extended spring training in Arizona on Friday. He threw 44 pitches and reported no issues, according to General Manager Billy Eppler.UP NEXTAngels (RHP Matt Harvey, 1-3, 6.94) vs. Orioles (RHP Dylan Bundy, 1-4, 5.30), Saturday, 1 p.m. PT, Fox Sports West BALTIMORE — Zack Cozart and Shohei Ohtani flew together to Detroit earlier this week – one ready to start his season and one ready to start over.Cozart, who boarded that plane with a .109 batting average, said he’s trying to forget about all that happened in the first month of the season, before he went on the injured list with a neck injury.“It’s almost like I’m starting over,” Cozart said. “I don’t worry about what I did before I went on the IL. Just do what I can to help us win.”Cozart had a hit in each of the three games in Detroit, raising his average to .132. The Angels faced left-handed starters in all three of those games. On Friday in Baltimore, they were set to face a righty, and Cozart was on the bench. David Fletcher, who also hits right-handed, was in the lineup at third.