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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The NHL’s current playoff format continues to be a complete disaster and needs an overhaul.
I hated the idea four years ago when it was announced and I feel no different about it today. It’s truly awful as it currently stands.
Allow me to explain.
Earlier this week, the Washington Capitals guaranteed themselves another banner raising ceremony in October. The Caps locked up the Presidents’ Trophy and with that comes home-ice advantage for as long as they are in the playoffs – or through the second round, whichever comes first.
Sure, that last bit is intended as a playful jab at the franchise that hasn’t made it to a conference final in the Alex Ovechkin era.
More importantly, it brings me to my first point about why the current playoff format has proven to be as terrible as initially feared.
- Running The Gauntlet
As of this posting, three of the top four teams in the league call the Metropolitan Division home – Washington, Pittsburgh and Columbus. This may very well be a statistical anomaly this year, who knows? But, I’m glad it’s happening to highlight everything that is wrong with the playoff format.
Under the NHL’s previous format, the top-seeded Capitals would face the lowest possible seed in the conference in each round. Technically, that is still the case, but things work differently now.
The Capitals will still get the lowest ranked team in the first round of the playoffs, but the change comes in the second round.
Thanks to a divisional bracket, Washington’s “reward” for getting out of the first round is to face either Pittsburgh or Columbus – the second or third best team in the conference.
Yes, the system allows for the top two teams in the conference to meet in the second round rather than in the conference final.
If this sounds familiar, it should. It happened in both conferences last year. Yes, both.
- This Format Rewards Mediocrity
Here’s where things get fun.
Now, because the New York Rangers are just off the pace of the top three in the Metropolitan Division, they will move over into the Atlantic Division bracket as the top Wild Card. There, they’ll meet Montreal in the first round.
As of Friday, the Rangers were one point behind the Atlantic Division-champion Canadiens. Each have two games left to play, which means it’s entirely possible that the Rangers finish with more points than the entire Atlantic Division and open up on the road. Brilliant.
It gets even better for the Rangers.
Should they get by the Canadiens, they’ll be rewarded with a matchup against either the sixth or seventh overall seed in the East.
- Top-seeded Capitals (should they advance) will see either Pittsburgh or Columbus in the second round.
- The winner of Canadiens/Rangers (No. 4 or No. 5 seed) gets the No. 6 or No. 7 seed.
How is this even remotely acceptable?
In any sport, the reward for a strong regular season is an “easier” path in the playoffs. For the second year in a row, we could see the biggest flaw of this system come to life.
Granted, no path to the Stanley Cup is easy and every team that qualifies has earned the right to play for immortality in silver.
But, don’t give me this whole “you have to play the best to beat the best” nonsense. This isn’t a matter of being afraid of the prospect of seeing Columbus and Washington in consecutive rounds either.
My point here is that top teams will have to face one another far too early in the tournament, while mediocre teams get a pass.
People love upsets, it’s one of the biggest draws of March Madness. How is a No. 7 beating a No. 6 an upset? What about a No. 2 over a No. 1? At least the old format allowed for the prospect of bigger upsets, while preserving the potential for top teams to meet where they should meet – in the later rounds.
- Best Storylines Used Up Early
To be completely honest, the Penguins-Capitals series last year was amazing to watch. Sure, it probably took years off my life, but the games were highly entertaining and loaded with star power.
The NHL finally got its marquee playoff matchup between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin for the first time since 2009. The headlines and storylines wrote themselves and the series lived up to the hype again.
Now, imagine how much better it would have been for the league had the teams been battling for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.
Imagine what Nick Bonino’s overtime series-winner in Game 6 would have felt like. Imagine what that arena would have sounded like. Imagine the impact of knocking out your archrival to move within four wins of the ultimate prize.
Instead, as great as that moment was, the win merely marked the halfway point of the playoff run. It was another notch in the belt.
Now, the NHL got extremely lucky with the Eastern Conference Final. The Penguins and Lightning participated in an incredible seven-game series. That was even without the likes of Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop for the majority of the series.
Call it a hunch, but I can’t see that being the case once again this year. It feels like the gap between the top three seeds and the rest of the conference is substantial. Only the Rangers or Canadiens seem to pose a viable threat and one of them will be gone in the first round.
And yes, the old format allowed for the potential of the top two seeds meeting in the 1 vs. 4 matchup in the second round. It wasn’t perfect, but the three division winners getting a guaranteed 1-3 seed was the glaring issue there.
Surely, there has to be a way to fix this. Maybe only guarantee a playoff spot to division winners and let the rest of the chips fall as they may. If a division gets six teams in, so be it. Maybe don’t guarantee that the division winner gets home-ice if they were to play a team with more points.
I don’t know. There has to be a way to fix this broken system.
This is the time of year where casual hockey fans tune in every night. There’s nothing better than playoff hockey and the format should fit the occasion, not hold it back.