The NHL’s regular season is an eighty two game long grind followed by a post-season Stanley Cup playoffs contested by the eight best teams from the Eastern and the Western Conferences respectively. Eventually, the winners of the two Conferences face off in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Prior to the 2013-14 season, the NHL Playoffs mirrored the format that the NBA playoffs follow, with the slight modification of reseeding following every round. In essence though, the first seed played the eighth seed, the second seed played the seventh and so on. In the aforementioned 2013-14 season, the league realigned itself and brought back a divisional playoff system. This meant that the NHL realigned into a four-division, two-conference system. Under the new postseason system, the top three teams in each division make the playoffs, with two wild-cards in each conference (for a total of eight playoff teams from each conference). In the First Round, the top-ranked team in the conference plays against the lowest-ranked wild-card, while the other division winner plays against the higher ranked wild-card. The second and third place teams in each division then play each other. The first round winners then meet in the Second Round. The third round will still consist of the Western Conference and Eastern Conference Finals, with those conference winners advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Now that explaining the technicality of the new system is over, let’s go to the main problems in this system.
First, the Crosby-Ovechkin question.
Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are the two biggest superstars of the NHL today. Crosby, a Canadian was drafted in the same class along with Ovechkin. Crosby turns out for the Pittsburgh Penguins while Ovechkin turns out for the Washington Capitals. For those of you who don’t follow ice hockey, think of this rivalry as the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry in football.
However, due to the new playoff format, Crosby and Ovechkin never meet in the Eastern Conference finals. And this year is no exception. As the second round of the playoffs begin on Thursday (IST), the Capitals and the Penguins- the two best teams in the NHL this season- meet. With these two being the league’s two superstar players being on two superstar teams, it makes no sense that there is not even a Stanley Cup Finals berth on the line when they take to the ice. The winner of this series has to negotiate an Eastern Conference final against either the New York Rangers or the Ottawa Senators to win that right. It’s like the number one seeded Golden State Warriors playing the number two San Antonio Spurs in the semifinals of the NBA playoffs. It makes no sense.
The deeper the playoffs go, as fans, we want the best teams to fight it out. And if Crosby and Ovechkin are playing in the semis instead of the finals, where is the possibility of the two best teams fighting it out in the finals?
Second, the “rigging” of playoff series.
Technically, it’s not match fixing or rigging – which is why the double quotes. But here’s the deal. Last season, the New York Rangers got eliminated in the first round by the Pittsburgh Penguins because they finished third and the Pens finished second in the regular season behind the Capitals. Hence, following a five game series, the Pens knocked the Rangers out. This season, the Rangers knew all they had to do to avoid a first round matchup with Pittsburgh or a second round matchup against Washington, the Rangers held on to fourth place in the division. Thus, as a higher ranked wildcard, New York played the Montreal Canadiens, winners of the much weaker Atlantic Division and closed them off in six games. In the semi-finals, they are matched with another Atlantic side, the Ottawa Senators- and the Rangers are favoured in this matchup too.
While it was not fixed, the Rangers certainly found it beneficial to stay in fourth place in the division through the regular season- giving themselves a very good shot at the Eastern Conference title. And this is a problem the league is going to have to sort out.
All in all, the playoffs are what makes the hockey season interesting. But instead of having people tune in when the playoff runs get deeper, the current format has people tuning out. If the NHL wants to stay competitive and compete with the NBA (which also has a similar timeline for a season), it is going to have revamp and go back to the previous format at the very least.