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Is the NHL's current playoff format unfair?

Is the NHL's current playoff format unfair?

The Washington Capitals’ second round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins have left many feeling like it was soon. Literally.

The Caps and Penguins entered the playoffs as the top two teams in the conference in terms of record. Instead of a titanic conference finals clash, however, the two teams met one round early thanks to the NHL’s divisional playoff format.

Now in the wake of the Capitals’ loss, many are wondering if the new format is unfair.

“I think No. 1 and 2 in the Eastern Conference went head-to-head,” Barry Trotz said following Tuesday’s Game 6 loss. “We just met in the second round. Maybe if we went a different route or the standings were a little bit different in terms of how the format was, maybe we meet in the next round, but I think who knows?”

The Capitals were the best team in the NHL from start to finish, but once again fell in the second round thanks in large part to playing a team they were not supposed to play yet.

When the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, the NHL was forced to shuffle its divisions. The league took that opportunity to completely change the divisional structure. Instead of six divisions, there are now only four. This also changed the playoff structure. Previously, the top eight teams from each conference were seeded with the top seed playing the lowest seed in each round. That is no longer the case. Now the top three teams in each division make the playoffs plus two wild cards from each conference.

Why did they do this? The main reason was to promote rivalries. With teams playing divisional opponents, the Caps are more likely to play teams like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York in the postseason. Toronto is more likely to play other eastern Canadian teams, the California teams are more likely to face one another, etc., etc.

In some ways, this makes sense. There is certaiinly an argument to be made for leagues wanting great early round playoff matchups. Take March Madness, for instance. The best part of the tournament is the opening week when, from Thursday to Sunday, you have wall-to-wall action. It may seem strange, but those first two rounds are what make that tournament great, not the later rounds.


The NHL’s new format makes it more likely that we get compelling series in the early rounds and thus helps avoid the league from ever becoming like the NBA in which almost every series in the first two rounds feels meaningless.

These were the matchups we were given with this season:

First round

Eastern Conference
Metropolitan Division

1. Washington vs. WC Philadelphia
2. Pittsburgh vs. 3. New York Rangers

Atlantic Division
1. Florida vs. WC New York Islanders
2. Tampa Bay vs. 3. Detroit

Western Conference
Central Division

1. Dallas Stars vs. WC Minnesota
2. St. Louis vs. 3. Chicago

Pacific Division
1. Anaheim vs. WC Nashville
2. Los Angeles vs. 3. San Jose

But if you take a look at at how the playoffs would have looked under the old playoff format, you see the folly of the NHL’s reasoning:

(One thing to note, the three division winners were previously given the top three seeds. Those divisions, however, no longer exist so for the sake of argument these seeds are based just on the standings and not on divisions)

Eastern Conference
1. Washington vs. 8. Detroit
2. Pittsburgh vs. 7. Philadelphia
3. Florida vs. 6. Tampa Bay
4. New York Rangers vs. 5. New York Islanders

Western Conference
1. Dallas vs. 8. Minnesota
2. St. Louis vs. 7. Nashville
3. Chicago vs. 6. San Jose
4. Anaheim vs. Los Angeles

Look at those matchups: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Florida and Tampa, New York and New York, Anaheim and Los Angeles. There are a lot of rivals facing one another and we didn't get that in the divisional format.

This highlights the question the league should have asked itself before overhauling the system: was the NHL really lacking compelling playoff series in the first two rounds? Of course not. The NHL is known for its parity and the unpredictability of the playoffs, including in the first round. And it's not as if we never see rivals meet in the playoffs. Just ask the Rangers and New Jersey Devils.

In fact, when two teams play each other too many times, it can sometimes get stale. Did anyone really want to see another Caps-Rangers series this season?

Now let’s circle back to the original issue over whether this system is unfair and take a look at potential second round matchups:

(This assumes the same teams would have advanced in the East)

Eastern Conference
1. Washington vs. 6. Tampa Bay
2. Pittsburgh vs. 5. New York Islanders

With all due respect to Tampa Bay, a Lightning team without Steven Stamkos would have been a much easier matchup for the Caps than the Penguins. You can’t assume Washington would have won, but they certainly would have had a better chance of getting over that second round hurdle.

As we saw this year, it also can become pretty clear that one side of the bracket is much lighter than the other. The Islanders essetially dressed its B-team on the final day of the season, presumably so the team could lose its final game and avoid jumping the Rangers in the standings. That put the Islanders in the wild card in the Atlantic bracket instead of the loaded Metropolitan.

There is no system that can completely prevent teams from trying to position themselves for the best first round matchup, but the former system made it difficult to project who a team would play in the second and third round and also disincentivized teams dropping in the standings because it meant playing a higher seed in the second round.

So if the new system doesn't promote rivalries any more than previously did and in fact undercuts top teams, then what's the point?

Perhaps the Caps are not the best team to argue the system is unfair (I touched on this yesterday after Trotz’s press conference). For a team with Stanley Cup aspirations it shouldn’t matter when you play Pittsburgh, you still have to beat them. No one is going to feel sorry for a Washington team that has consistently underachieved in the postseason.

But that doesn’t mean Trotz doesn't have a point.


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3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

You may think this was an ugly four-game road trip for the Caps, but with a 3-2 win in Buffalo on Monday, Washington managed to earn five out of a possible eight points.

Here is why the Caps beat the Sabres and managed to save the road swing.

A missed high-stick (maybe) from Ovechkin

Ovechkin scored the first goal of the game in the second period as he deflected a high-shot from Christian Djoos down past goalie Chad Johnson. But did the deflection come on a high stick? The play was reviewed and the goal was ultimately upheld. According to the NHL, it was determined that "video review supported the Referee's call on the ice that Alex Ovechkin's stick was at or below the height of the crossbar when he tipped the puck into the Buffalo net."

NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May broke the play down during the second intermission and made his case for why the NHL actually got the call wrong.

Was that a high stick? I don't know. As compelling an argument as May made, it still looks inconclusive which means the review made the right call. What surprises me is that the referee did not disallow the goal on the initial call.

Whether the review is truly inconclusive or flat out wrong, Washington was fortunate to walk away from this sequence with the goal.


A centimeter of ice

Hockey is a game of inches and it took less than an inch to put Washington up 2-0. When an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot hit off the boards and bounced back to the front of the net, it sparked a scrum next to goalie Chad Johnson. Eventually, John Carlson was able to get a swipe on the puck sending it trickling to the goal line, but Kyle Okposo was there waiting and appeared to kick it out to safety just before it crossed. A review triggered by the Situation Room, however, revealed that the puck had just barely managed to cross the goal line before Okposo got to it.

Here's the view the NHL released after the review:

Philipp Grubauer's third period

After dominating the first 40 minutes of the game and taking a 2-0 lead, Buffalo predictably made a late push in the third period with two goals to pull within one. Washington outshot the Sabres in the first and second periods, but Buffalo reversed that trend in a big way in the third as they outshot the Caps 17-6. Grubauer turned aside 15 of those shots and was impressive after barely being tested in the first two periods.


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3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

Coming off an ugly 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a Buffalo Sabres team missing star Jack Eichel was just what the doctor ordered for the Caps to get back on track. Washington dominated the first two periods and then survived a late surge from Buffalo for the 3-2 win.

After battling to a scoreless first, Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson spotted Washington a 2-0 lead in the second. They then held on in the third period as Buffalo began to tilt the ice in their favor, with Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring the empty-netter to put this game out of reach. Evander Kane would pull Buffalo within one, but with only three seconds left it was too little, too late.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Alex Ovechkin: Ovechkin opened up the scoring in the second period as he deflected down an innocent shot from Christian Djoos past Chad Johnson.

Ovechkin also set a physical tone as he battled with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen all game long. After taking a high elbow from Ristolainen early in the game Ovechkin skated up to Ristolainen prior to the faceoff on his next shift and let him know that it was on. 

2. John Carlson: Carlson had a hand in both of Washington's first two goals. He recorded a secondary assist on Ovechkin's goal as he made a blue line pass to Djoos which Djoos fired on net and Ovechkin deflected. Carlson then managed to hit the puck past the goal line in a scrum next to Johnson. It looked initially like Kyle Okposo had managed to kick out the puck just before it crossed, but Carlson was awarded the goal as a review showed the puck had completely crossed the line.

3. Philipp Grubauer: A Sabres team that ranks last in the NHL in scoring and that was also without its leading scorer did not test Grubauer much in the first two periods. Facing a 2-0 deficit, however, Buffalo made a third period push to try to tie the game, but Grubauer was up to the task as he turned aside 15 of the 17 shots he faced in the final 20 minutes. He finished with 32 total saves on the night.