When the NHL paused its season on March 12, the Boston Bruins were the top team in the league by a wide margin. Boston held an eight-point lead over Tampa Bay for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference and a six-point lead for the top record in the NHL and that was with just 12 games left to go on its schedule.
Fast-forward to May 26 and the Bruins will be forced to play three games that could see them drop all the way to fourth in the conference. The Capitals, meanwhile, who saw their significant division lead shaved down to a single point by the time play stopped could take the top spot in the conference in their round-robin matchup against Boston, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.
The top four seeds in each conference will receive byes past the play-in round. Instead of playing in a playoff series, however, those teams will be in a round-robin tournament to determine the top four seeds. That's great for a team like Washington or Philadelphia, but that could potentially be disastrous for Boston who had all but locked up the top spot in the conference before the league paused its season.
If you're wondering what's the point, you're not alone, especially if you root for Boston. The Bruins stand to gain nothing from the round-robin tournament other than what they had already earned in the regular season.
But there's a reason why the NHL felt it was important to give the top teams these games.
"By getting a bye, they're going to be facing a team that just came out of a competitive series," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday, "And the concern was they needed to have some competition that might not put them at risk in terms of the playoffs but would give them an opportunity to play some real games, and that was the thinking that went into this."
I wrote about this very problem on Monday. The issue is that after so much time away from the ice, no team is going to be ready to step right into a playoff scenario right out of an abbreviated training camp. The teams in a play-in round don't have a choice and in that sense, the bye is very beneficial.
But what happens in the next round when the top teams have to play against teams that just won a playoff series? It is going to be hard for the top teams to match the intensity or cohesion of those teams who were placed in a do-or-die series and won.
Sure, the Caps have already punched their ticket to the Round of 16, but when they get there they are going to play a team that is probably a lot more prepared for the intensity of playoff hockey than they are.
Because of that, the league decided to give the top teams the round-robin just to give them something. They needed some competitive games before being thrust into a playoff series against a team that has already won one.
"They needed some games that mattered to some extent in order to be coming against a team that just played a competitive series," Bettman said. "The benefit and the curse of a bye, I suppose."
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