Does the NHL's current playoff format put elite teams in the same division at a disadvantage?
The Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs sit second and third, respectively, in the Atlantic Division entering Tuesday night. Boston owns the second-best record in the league with 93 points (42-18-9), while Toronto is fifth with 89 points (42-22-5). But these teams are a near-lock to square off in the first round under the league's playoff format that pits the second- and third-place teams in each division against each other.
Therefore, in the same series, one of the league's top-five teams will open the playoffs on the road, and one of them will be eliminated before the second round. How unfair is this format for teams in Boston's and Toronto's situation? Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, whose team has a comfortable lead atop the Atlantic, came to the defense of his divisional rivals in a candid response earlier this week.
"It is what it is. It's been that way for a while now," Stamkos said, per TSN. "You are gonna have to beat the best teams to win anyways, whether it's the first round or the conference finals. I understand where they're coming from, from a marketing perspective, wanting to get some rivalries early on. But from a perspective of what you're grinding 82 games for during a season is to finish as high as you can so you can have that advantage come playoffs. I don't think that's an advantage to Toronto or Boston to be what could be the top three teams in the whole league in one division and then have to play that team in the first round. I don't think that's right. ... It is what it is. You can't change it now, but I don't think it's the most fair in terms of why you play and the advantage you're supposed to have come playoff time."
It's hard to disagree with what Stamkos says here.
The rivalry aspect certainly is a cool part of the current format, but the system also eliminates some of the best teams early on, and you could argue these matchups between top-five teams would be better later in the playoffs when the stakes are higher.
Under the old format, Boston likely would play the Carolina Hurricanes or Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1. Those teams aren't easy opponents, but neither is better than Toronto. The Leafs have the league's second-best goal differential (including the second-most goals scored), and the odds are they will play a potential Game 7 on the road in the first round.
That's not a fair system, and if more players of Stamkos' caliber speak out, maybe some tweaks to the format can be made in the near future.
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