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The Last Word: The NHL playoff format ain't broke, so don't fix it

The NHL playoff format isn’t perfect, but the rivalry showdowns are the best thing about the spring – even if they happen early.

Google the phrase “NHL playoff format.” Before you can even finish typing, a number of options appear. The fifth one down is “NHL playoff format stupid,” and if you click on it, you get 261,000 results. The eighth one down is “NHL playoff format is bad,” and that produces a whopping 765,000 results. So we get it. More than a million basement bloggers think the playoff format is either stupid or bad, or both.

Forget for a second that it’s neither stupid nor bad, and while you’re doing that, it might be a good idea to come to grips with the fact it’s not going anywhere. Giving a point to a team that loses in overtime or a shootout, now that’s stupid. But when it comes to the NHL post-season, the league has had a number of opportunities to make changes, and despite the occasional murmur of discontent by a team that gets screwed, the owners and the league like it just the way it is.

The good thing about this annual carp-fest is it means the playoffs are just around the corner. And whatever the format, the Cup chase is without a doubt the best post-season tournament in sports. For the past couple years, the largest howls have come from Boston and Toronto, two teams that went down the stretch among the top six clubs in the NHL with a date to meet in the first round. Indeed, when you add Tampa Bay to the equation, it creates a situation where two of the league’s top six teams are guaranteed to be eliminated in the first two rounds. But unless you want to go back to the “1-16, 2-15, etc.” format that the NHL won’t even consider because of travel issues and lack of natural rivalries, pretty much every other format has its warts, too.

For example, those same Leafs fans who are grousing about the current format probably wouldn’t have been complaining if it were 1987-88 and the divisional playoff format allowed their team to make the playoffs despite having a .325 winning percentage and finishing one point out of last overall in the league. Sometimes you benefit from these things and sometimes you get hosed.

When talking about the playoff system, two quotes attributed to Winston Churchill concerning democracy spring to mind. The first is, “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The other, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” In the case of the latter quote, substitute the word ���democracy” with “playoff format” and the word “voter” with “hockey fan.”

From this corner, the NHL gets this right. Are there teams that end up out of the playoffs in the first or second round when their regular-season finish otherwise might have seen them advance to at least the conference final? Yes, that’s going to happen from time to time. But here’s the thing. The NHL’s playoff format accomplishes exactly what the NHL wants. It results in divisional rivalries because you generally have to defeat two divisional opponents in order to advance to the conference final. Divisional rivalries are important to the NHL because they drive viewership numbers and produce a healthy disdain for other markets. Nothing builds up a good rivalry more than losing to a team a couple of times in the playoffs. Some of the most enduring memories for fans come out of these rivalries, and by having this format, the league puts itself in a position to constantly deliver these rivalry series to fans.

And from an entertainment standpoint, the first round of the playoffs is the most compelling. It’s when teams are most fresh and their tanks are almost full. Why wouldn’t the NHL capitalize on that frenzy by pitting rivals against one another? Would you rather see Winnipeg and Nashville guaranteed to play in the second round of the playoffs when both teams are high energy, or would you rather cross your fingers and hope they meet later in the post-season when one or both might be out of gas?

Just for fun, we looked at the NHL standings as of March 20. No team had more than 10 games remaining. Based on points percentage, the first-round matchups would’ve been Tampa Bay-Columbus, Boston-Toronto, Washington-Carolina and Pittsburgh-Islanders in the East, and Calgary-Arizona, San Jose-Vegas, Winnipeg-Dallas and Nashville-St. Louis in the West.

Now contrast that with what the series would’ve been if the league were playing under the old “1-8, 2-7, etc.” format: Tampa Bay-Columbus, Boston-Pittsburgh, Washington-Carolina and Toronto-Islanders in the East, and Calgary-Arizona, San Jose-Dallas, Winnipeg-St. Louis and Nashville-Vegas in the West. The variance in points for the lower-seeded team under the current format and the old one was no more than six in any series. So what’s all the fuss about?

To win the Cup, a team has to win four series. Thanks to parity, none of those series will be easy. Part of what made Washington’s run to the Cup so special last spring was they finally vanquished their kryptonite, the Penguins, along the way. That victory was years in the making. Some of them were miserable, but it was all the more sweet when the Caps finally conquered their rival. The NHL is the only league that delivers that kind of drama year-in and year-out. And that’s why it’s not messing with this good thing.


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