The NHL’s highest scoring team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, face off against the rock-solid Washington Capitals in an epic match-up between two of the league’s best…in the second round?
The Capitals may be rewarded for being the best team in the Eastern Conference with a grueling seven game stint with league wide point leaders Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Why? Because a broken playoff system makes the best teams face each other too soon.
Instead of a rematch of the 09’ Eastern Conference Final that saw Ovechkin and Crosby battle it out to combine for sixteen goals, we get to see two of the NHL’s best teams forced out of the playoffs by the third round. In the past, the playoffs were about the best playing the best and at the end of the playoffs. Now, with the new playoff format, the playoffs will miss the mark on giving teams the matchups they deserve.
Previously, the playoffs reserved spots for the leader in each division and seeded the remaining slots based on points. The new format divides each conference into two divisions, and the top three teams in each division earn a playoff berth. With four divisions in the NHL, this fills twelve of the sixteen spots. The remaining four are filled by wild-card teams with highest point totals-two from each conference. The first place team from each division will face one of the conference wild-cards, while the second and third place teams in each division face off.
The goal is to promote division rivalries, but an inadvertent consequence is potentially punishing teams that perform well in the regular season with a harder trek through the playoffs.
As the standings sit right now, the Blue Jackets would play the Penguins in the first round. The two teams at second and third in the Eastern Conference have to battle each other in the first round of the playoffs. As exciting as that first match-up may be, both of those teams have earned an easier road to the cup.
On top of an immensely difficult road for the conference’s best, in the Atlantic Division you have the Senators playing the Bruins first round, both of which have less points than one of the Eastern Conference wild-card teams. The Canadiens, who lead the Atlantic, only play a wild-card team and then the winner of the Senators-Bruins game. This means that points wise on a conference scale, the winner of the fifth and eighth teams will play either the sixth or seventh team.
Meanwhile in the Metropolitan Division, the winner of the Capitals and Islanders will have to play whoever moves on from the Penguins and the Blue Jackets. In other words, the winner of the first and eighth seed will play the winner of the second and third seed. Should the best team in the conference have to get past the second or third best team to advance in the first round?
The answer is a resounding no. In the words of Capital’s captain Alexander Ovechkin, “Why do you need to win the President’s trophy to face the best teams? It’s kind of weird.” Of the many ways to describe this new format, weird is certainly a valid one.
Not only does it remove incentive to place well in the regular season, it keeps the best from playing the best. If winning your division is going to earn you an early series with the league’s highest scoring team, while being the seventh seed means you don’t play a team higher than the fifth seed until the conference final, why win?
Also, the 09’ series was a classic clash of two respected rivals, while being a battle to be conference champions. The intensity of a conference championship is something to behold, especially when it is truly a battle of the bests.
If the highest seeds win out in the bracket set forth, the best match-up we can hope for is Washington to play a Montreal team that hasn’t played a single team seeded higher than them in the playoffs. Shouldn’t you have to beat more than one team above you to be a, conference champion?
As with anything, the problems are easy to find and harder to solve. The push for divisional rivalry stems from the new divisions that the realignment created. When divisional rivalries such as the Red Wings and Blues cease to exist because they’re no longer in the same division, something has to spark rivalry in the new divisions. Be it outdoor games such as the Flyers and Penguins recent matchup, or the natural development of rivalry from playing teams in your division more frequently, there has to be a better way to ignite the flame between two teams that refrains from punishing regular season success.
The post-season within the Metro will showcase the flaws with the new format, and hopefully push the NHL to change it. If the league doesn’t revert back to a seed based system, the NHL is going to have a problem with weaker teams going further than they should due to easier match-ups while the best take care of each other,only to play whoever the other division has left. This is all in addition the loss of the iconic championship games between teams that both deserve to be there. Be sure to stay tuned for the first round of the playoffs, it may be the best hockey we see.