Thursday, May 3, 2018

The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Continue to Punish the Best Teams

By Michael Donne
        The NHL playoffs are in the middle of the cycle, and while entertaining for NHL fans, many fans of the teams currently competing are understandably frustrated. The NHL playoffs are determined by regular season standings, but take division into account. There are two divisions each in both the Eastern and Western Conference, and the top 3 teams of each division make the playoffs, while the 2 best record teams that did not fall in the top 3 in their division also make the playoffs as wildcards.
        While being in a good division can stifle a team that performed better than a team in a worse division, the problem is rare and is not the real problem. The problem begins with how the teams are seeded. The winners of the division are always rewarded, with the division winner with the better record playing the worst wild card team, and the other division winner to play the better wild card team. The two best teams play the two worst, and is fair. The teams that finish second and third in the same division end up playing each other, and this is where things go off the rails. For example, this year, the Boston Bruins put up 112 points in the regular season, only one point behind the top team in the East, the Tampa Bay Lightning. A fantastic regular season deserves an easy first round matchup, but the playoff format did not allow for it. While Boston competed better than any other team aside from one, that one team happened to be in their division, leaving the Bruins second in their division. The playoff format that currently stands means that the second best team in the east had to go through the fourth best team in the east in the first round, the Toronto Maple Leafs. While this occured, the Washington Capitals, with a worse record at 105 points, led their division, and was rewarded with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who only had 97 points, and barely made the playoffs. The Boston Bruins were punished for simply being in a top heavy division, and despite being one of the best teams, almost lost in the first round, being the only series that went seven.
        Many other sports leagues decide the playoffs by divisions, but what makes it different is the regular season schedule. Other leagues allow teams to impact their division heavily, by having teams play within their division twice as much as other teams. With the NHL, however, teams play their divisional teams only a game or two than the other teams in the same conference, but different division.With a long 82 game season, one or two games is not enough to make a significant impact. For the NHL to judge teams based on division, but not play each other enough to impact other divisional teams, teams are left hoping that they are placed somewhere that allows a fortunate matchup in the playoffs.
       The playoff format is at its worst in the second round, where currently both the best teams in the east and west are put up against each other, while worse teams are going against each other. While it does make for interesting hockey for the first two rounds, the third round of the playoffs ends up almost always being a small hurdle for the winner of the two best teams in the 2nd round, defeating a team in the conference finals that doesn’t belong there. When the commissioner of the NHL, Gary Bettman, was asked to comment on the if the playoff format negates the regular season, he stated, “If you’re gonna win the cup, you gotta go through the best teams.” While what Gary Bettman says is true, the brutal matchups the best teams must go through can lead to an exhausted team, and can hinder them as the series goes on.
        For example, the playoff format lead the two best teams in the entire league, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, to play in the second round. Washington, despite having the best record in the league, got bounced in a long 7 game series by the Pittsburgh Penguins, the second best team in the league. Meanwhile, the 9th placed Rangers were playing the 12th placed Ottawa Senators. After Washington's historic regular season was crushed due to the playoff format allowing a wild card to be given a easier matchup than the best team in the league, it left Pittsburgh exhausted. Ottawa won this series despite being outplayed, but ultimately winning by outcoaching New York, allowing them to come back late in the game 2 times in the series. By just managing to find a way to win against a wild card team, it was impossible to see Ottawa do anything to a team that just beat a team with one of the best regular seasons of all time.
        However, Ottawa was able to force the series to overtime in Game 7, where they ultimately lost. The fact that Ottawa was able to take a team as far as the best team in the league, despite being more flawed in almost every aspect is the way the NHL playoffs are, and it usually is ok. The Stanley Cup is often described as the hardest trophy to win in sports, as the two month journey to the cup is the most exhausting in sports, leaving teams riddled with exhaustion and injuries by seasons’ end. This is why sports give the best teams the easiest matchups, to reward teams that played well, and giving them matchups that end up leaving teams with enough in the tank to face what will most likely be the second best team in the conference. When the two best teams of each conference are consistently forced to go up against each other before the conference finals, it leaves an exhausted team that will now struggle against a worse team with an easier road to the conference finals.
        Simply going back to the old format can fix this issue. Rather than judging on divisions, ranking teams by placement in conference, and having the best team play the worst, and 2nd worst play the 2nd best, and so on, the NHL can create a format that rewards good regular season play. Separating the first and second best team to make sure they do not play each other unless both teams make the Conference Finals allows both the second and first round to evenly match teams throughout the playoffs. While the new playoff format can often lend itself to entertaining matchups in the first two rounds, it goes against what the Stanley Cup Playoffs are about, showing fans who the best team in the world is.

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