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Making Sense Of The New NHL Playoff Format

Ben Ebert |
April 7, 2014 | 10:15 a.m. PDT

Staff Writer

The four divisions after realignment (Google Images).
The four divisions after realignment (Google Images).
Many of us are still trying to understand the new NHL realignment, where the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference and the Winnipeg Jets to the Western Conference. Of course, all of the shifts make sense for the sake of teams playing most of their games in the same time zones. What doesn’t make sense is the unbalanced number of teams in each conference, with 16 in the East and only 14 in the West.  But with the NHL postseason approaching quickly, we’ll have to push aside this realignment conundrum because it’s time to familiarize ourselves with the brand new playoff format that is causing even more confusion among hockey fans.

For those who are unfamiliar with how the old format worked, the top eight teams from each conference would make the playoffs and matchups would be set as 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7, 3 vs 6, 4 vs 5. Teams would be reseeded in the second round, maintaining the concept of the highest seeded team playing the lowest seed. The third round would determine the conference champion, who would then advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.

This year’s playoffs will be based on a bracket format rather than seeding, with an emphasis on divisional instead of conference matchups, at least for the first two rounds. Every matchup will be a best-of-seven series. The three top teams from each division make the playoffs, with two wild card spots per conference going to the following two highest-placing teams in each conference. Now this is where it gets a tad complicated. First round games are set up in divisional groups, with the top three teams from each division getting the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds respectively. The No. 4 seed in each group goes to one of the wild cards. The No. 2 and No. 3 seeds play each other in the first round. The division winner with the best conference record plays the wild card team with the lesser record. The other division winner faces the better of the two wild cards in that conference.

In the second round, the winners from the 1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3 matchups in each divisional group play one another. The winner of that series advances to the Conference Finals, taking on the winner from the other divisional group. The conference champion would obviously go on to face the other conference champion in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Okay, take a deep breath. Go back and reread if you need to, but this will be the format for the NHL playoffs this year, which are just over a week away. The problems people are having, other than the somewhat complicated structure, include how Eastern Conference franchises have two more teams to compete with than those in the West and how a team from the one division can now win a divisional crown in another.

The imbalance of teams in each conference does not make much sense. However, the solution to this issue is adding two teams to the league, something NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly has implied he wants to do.

The Sharks/Canucks rivalry developed in the playoffs (Flickr / Mike DeWald).
The Sharks/Canucks rivalry developed in the playoffs (Flickr / Mike DeWald).
Concerns regarding the possibility of a Central Division team winning the Pacific Division, a Metropolitan team winning the Atlantic Division, or vice versa, are coming up because of confusion with the new division-based bracket structure. Division champions have been and will remain determined by regular season records, not in the playoffs. It would make no sense to have a Central Division wild card placed into the Pacific Division playoff group if the winner from that group would be considered that division’s champion.

What this new postseason format will do is provide a greater likelihood of some great divisional rivalry matchups: Rangers/Flyers, Sharks/Kings, Blues/Blackhawks, Bruins/Canadiens. However, doesn’t the NHL postseason produce emotional and heated series' regardless? If I recall correctly, the playoffs tend to serve as a catalyst for new rivalries to be born, i.e. Sharks/Canucks. Nevertheless, the NHL hopes the new playoff setup adds more fuel to the fire regarding division rivalries, driving the passion and hopefully also the numbers of its fanbase.

ALSO SEE: 2013-14 NHL Season: One For Canada To Forget

Reach Staff Writer Ben Ebert here.



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