A Face-Lift for the NHL Playoffs

The odds of filling out a perfect NCAA bracket are 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 to 1. I’d like to think the odds of not getting a shot on goal during a four-minute power play are close to the same. But that’s what happened on Sunday when Marian Gaborik got high-sticked by Zdeno Chara, and the Rangers wasted a double minor against the Bruins in a must-win game.

The Rangers’ season came to an end on Sunday, three weeks before their last game is scheduled. Now sitting five points behind the Bruins for eighth place, and four points behind the Thrashers for ninth, only three points separate the Rangers and the lowly Islanders. A 3-5-2 record since the Olympic break has the Rangers closer to being the worst of three teams in the tri-state area than being in the postseason right now. However, after watching them fail on six power-play opportunities and once again leave Henrik Lundqvist out to dry, last place is where they belong.

There is nothing more depressing than watching regular season games that have no meaning. And with the Rangers ending their season on Sunday, the Knicks having ended their season in November and my NCAA bracket being destroyed by Kansas, it’s going to be a long 13 days until the Yankees and Red Sox meet at Fenway Park on Easter Sunday.

Maybe the Rangers not making the playoffs was actually a good thing. For one, it clearly shows Glen Sather that the team needs change (though he likely won’t make the necessary changes), and it probably would have just been depressing to watch the Capitals sweep the Rangers in four straight.

Even though a glimmer of hope still remains for the Rangers’ chances to make the postseason, they don’t deserve to – at least not under the current playoff format. But the current playoff format has a place for teams that finish .500 or barely better. And in the Eastern Conference, there are multiple spots in the postseason for teams in that category.

The NHL currently lets 53% of its teams into the postseason – tied with the NBA for the most playoff teams among the major sports. And the only reward for the top teams in the NHL is home-ice advantage for Games 1, 2, 5 and 7. Maybe home-ice is enough of an incentive for teams to finish at the top of their conference in the regular season, but in the era of cookie-cutter arenas, the idea of home-ice advantage ended when the lights went out on places like the Boston Garden, Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens. Home-ice advantages today are few and far between, and it’s hard to understand how “home ice” could be enough of a reward for a team that played better than .700 hockey for more than six months.

Sure, it would already be a daunting task for the currently eighth-seeded Bruins to take down the top-seeded Capitals in a best-of-seven, it’s not improbable. It’s not as improbable as it should be, and if Tim Thomas or Tuukka Rask were to get hot for a few days in April, the Capitals could be joining the Rangers at Alpine Country Club before the first of May.

It might be hard for the Bruins to eliminate the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, like it would be for any eighth seed to upend a first seed, but it should be a lot harder. There needs to be more of an incentive for teams to finish at or near the top of their conference, and there should be as much punishment as there is reward for teams that find the second season via the back door.

Under the current playoff format, there are three seven-game series for each conference and then the Stanley Cup finals, which is also a seven-game series. The 1, 2, 3 and 4 seeds are granted home-ice advantage in the first round and then the matchups reseed in the second round to determine the home-ice advantage. Using the Eastern Conference, if the playoffs started today, the matchups would be:

1. Capitals vs. 8. Bruins

2. Penguins vs. 7. Canadiens

3. Sabres vs. 6. Flyers

4. Devils vs. 5. Senators

The 16-team format has been used since the 1993-94 season, and it is the only format I am old enough to remember, and therefore the only format I have really ever known. I am OK with 16 teams making the postseason in the NHL, but how you get those 16 teams is a different story.

I have always wondered how the top teams in the league could be better rewarded for their regular-season success, and maybe it’s the 100 or so hours of college basketball or the college hockey playoffs that has finally given me the answer I have been searching for, but I think have finally found the solution to fairly modify the NHL postseason.

In the new-and-improved postseason, 10 teams would last past Game 82. The top six teams would clinch playoff berths and the bottom four teams would play to decide the final two spots in the conference.

Here are the top 10 teams in the East right now:

1. Capitals
2. Penguins
3. Sabres
4. Devils
5. Senators
6. Flyers
7. Canadiens
8. Bruins
9. Thrashers
10. Rangers

The Capitals, Penguins, Sabres, Devils, Senators and Flyers would be in the playoffs. The Canadiens, Bruins Thrashers and Rangers would play to decide the seventh and eighth seeds in the postseason.

The last day of the NHL season this year is Sunday, April 11. Under the new format, on Monday, April 12, the Canadiens, Bruins, Thrashers and Rangers would begin two three-game series. The teams would be seeded for the mini series in the order that they finished the regular season and the matchups would be:

7. Canadiens vs. 10. Rangers

8. Bruins vs. 9. Thrashers

The higher seeds (Canadiens and Bruins) would host every game of the three-game series. The winners of each series would fill the seventh and eighth seeds in the postseason. Once the eight seeds are determined following the conclusion of the three-game series, the postseason would return to its current format of seven-games series.

Under this proposed format, you are forcing the bubble teams to play on consecutive days right after finishing the regular season, in which they would have likely already been playing with a mentally-draining postseason mentality. You are rewarding the seventh and eighth seeds by allowing them to host the entire three-game series, while also punishing them for an average regular season by making them win an additional series just to reach the real postseason.

This way, the higher seeds in the conference get a few days of rest before the two-plus month playoff grind begins, and the top two seeds in the conference get the luxury of hosting a team that spent the last few weeks of the regular season fighting to play in the postseason, and then had to fight some more in a three-game mini series just to reach the actual postseason. There would finally be a real incentive for teams to finish atop the conference.

Not only is this format good for the top two seeds in both conferences, it is also good for the league as a whole. It would give teams that wouldn’t have made the postseason otherwise an alternate but also laborious route in, even if they would wind up meeting a rested top seed in the first round. It would make more teams eligible down the stretch for the 7, 8, 9, and 10 seeds, creating excitement for franchises that would have likely been dormant over the final month of the season. It would give the NHL the excitement MLB gets from its small postseason field and rare one-game playoffs, the stimulation the NFL playoffs generate from a one-and-done format and the theatrics the NCAA Tournament produces from being “March Madness.”

The NHL would be able to generate revenue through the two additional series, and they would be able to sell it as the prelude to the postseason. There is no doubt that the short series could create the sort of drama needed to build a bigger audience for the game, and with the actual postseason taking place over April, May and June, only real hockey enthusiasts remain attracted to the playoffs the entire time. The short series could give the the casual fan a quick fix for playoff hockey, and it might be enough for those new and interested fans to stick around for the long haul.

There is no reason this format can’t be implemented by the NHL. It keeps the current format intact, while also making a fair and just postseason for the teams that deserve to be in the postseason. The postseason is the ultimate reward for the regular season’s elite. It isn’t meant for the average and below average, which is it what it is currently designed for.

Last week during the Bruins-Hurricanes game, Andy Brickley said that “points are at a premium at this time of the season for the Bruins” – a phrase that has always made me laugh. A win is still two points and an overtime or shootout loss is still one point. The points aren’t any more valuable or “premium” now. What he should have said was “points are imperative” or “scarce” at this time of the season because the Bruins waited until the final weeks of the season to play with urgency.

The same goes for the Rangers as they try to salvage what is left of their most disappointing season in the post-lockout era. If the Rangers had played with consistency at any point this year, they wouldn’t find themselves with their backs against the wall as the season winds down, and they run out of possible points and time.

Success down the stretch will result in the Bruins being rewarded with the eighth and final seed in the postseason. Success all season for the Capitals will give them the top seed in the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage throughout the postseason. But one more home game in a possible seven-game series isn’t enough disparity between a team that played outstanding for six-plus months and one that played outstanding for one month. The Capitals and whichever team emerges as the best in West deserve more. They at least deserve the opportunity for a few extra days rest and the chance to play a tired and banged-up team that slipped in through the back door in the first round.