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Heartstopping 2011 playoffs just what the hockey doctor ordered

And, exhale.

This is what all hockey fans have had to remind themselves to do of late.

Every night, fan bases in at least two NHL cities have collectively held their breath longer than Harry Houdini trying to break out of an underwater packing crate. This year's tense, dramatic Stanley Cup playoffs have spared almost no one from a "Wait, hang on! Yessss! Noooooo!" stress test that leaves them a quivering pulp by the end.

All 16 teams in this year's tournament have had to play at least one overtime game. Tuesday night's 3-2 thriller between Vancouver and Nashville was the 19th OT match of the postseason, and there has been at least one on 14 of the last 15 nights dating back to April 19. And we're only in the second round. There were 18 extra-session matches in all of last season's playoffs, and that was still considered a lot. Four series so far have gone to seventh games and there have been dramatic comebacks, particularly the Lightning rallying from down three games to one to eliminate the Penguins, and the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks roaring back from down 0-3 to put a scare into the Canucks before falling in Game 7 (in overtime, naturally.) The skill level has often been off the proverbial charts (see: Bobby Ryan's thoroughly ridiculous goal vs. the Predators in the first round) and there's been an abundance of spectacular play as road teams have laid waste to the so-called home ice advantage.

HACKEL:Road teams feast on defensive lapses

HACKEL:Great goaltending steals the spotlight

Chain-smoking may be on the rise in cities whose teams are still alive, but otherwise this year's playoffs have been great for the league's health and image after a bruising, controversial regular season.

GALLERY:NHL's season of mayhem

TV ratings in the U.S., once the source of cringing embarrassment to the NHL, are now downright respectable, if not good. NBC in the first round averaged nearly two million viewers, up 12 percent from last year. On its other Comcast-owned TV partner, Versus, first-round viewership was up 8 percent (an average of 624,000 households) and 42 percent from two years ago.

Hockey is even being discussed some on the PTI-style talking head shows in the U.S., not that Kobe or LeBron will be displaced by Daniel and Henrik anytime soon on the countdown chart, but it's a start.

It may not quite be at the level of college basketball's March Madness, either, but April/May Madness has suddenly become one of the NHL's biggest marketing tools. Whereas the playoffs of yesteryear seemed plagued somewhat by the same sameness of the regular season, at least until the Stanley Cup Final, the modern postseason has almost a fundamentalist revival feel to it, the rows of arena seats converted into pews where color-coordinated worshipers lift hands aloft with every fortunate bounce of the puck.

(It's those pretty colors -- all orange in Philly, all blue in Tampa and so on -- that have helped give these playoff games a more appealing visual on TV).

What really sells the product, of course, is the play on the ice and nobody can deny it's been thrilling to watch. Some games, indeed, have been low-scoring, but not because of the hook-hold-trap ways of the Dead Puck Era. The vast majority of the time, they have been played at breathtaking, back-and-forth speed with an abundance of good scoring chances. Teams that get a lead still get more conservative, but they pay for it much more so than in the old days when they could bottle up the neutral zone and clutch-and-grab at will.

This year's playoffs also seem to be freeing the world from the incessant carping that the hockey media does during much of the regular season. With probably too much time on their hands and too many stories to crank out in what still feels like an interminable 82-game schedule, scribes and pundits fill much of it by nitpicking every little thing about the game, most especially by analyzing every video of a marginal disciplinary incident like it was the Zapruder film.

But even the most jaded press box cynic seems to have come alive with favorable passion for these playoffs as the games remind of us what makes hockey such a great sport. The advent of social media has also helped the NHL. Not just media poobahs comment on these games, everyone who has a working Twitter or Facebook account can get in on the fun. One of the chief parlor games this year has been the posting of choices to score the winning goal in overtime, then a communal recognition of the night's Nostradamus when it's over.

That sense of community, even in front of TVs and laptops separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, has let everyone sweat out each loose puck, each joyous victory and each heartbreaking loss together in real time.

The Stanley Cup playoffs have always been seen as a true test of endurance, but now even extreme sport aficionados are migrating hockey's way after seeing just how grueling these games really are. Unlike the NBA, where play seems to stop every 15 seconds or so due to the latest disparaged foul call and games are often played in 72-hour intervals, NHL teams go hard pretty much the full 20 minutes of each period. The players, banged up and aching, go full tilt, often into and through the overtimes. Two nights later, or less, they're back at it again.

As the field is winnowed out, the exhaustion factor lessens for both fans and players. After this second round, only four clubs will be standing, leaving more down time for the fan who loves to watch all the games. Maybe those respites will help keep them out of the ICU from the stresses of the previous rounds and games.

So breathe deep and let it out slow. Enjoy that one last serene moment before you head to the arena or switch on your TV, as it will be three hours and maybe a lot more before you can exhale again.

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