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It's been fun, but the NHL should not stick with the 2020 playoff format

It's been fun, but the NHL should not stick with the 2020 playoff format

This was going to be the year to experiment. No matter what, the 2020 postseason was going to be different. The coronavirus dictated that. The NHL should be applauded for thinking outside the box and trying different things this year, but when the league looks forward to the next season and beyond, let's not get nuts.

The 2020 postseason format has been great given the time we are living in and the adjustments that had to be made, but no, the NHL should not adopt this postseason format going forward, regardless of how fun it has been.

Let's be clear, the regular NHL's playoff format is bad. This is in no way a defense of the nonsensical divisional format which sets up the same matchups over and over and over again and punishes teams in good divisions. A wild card format so complicated you can't explain it to a casual fan? Having the two best teams in a division play in the second round even if they are the two best teams in the conference? Blech. It's terrible. The 2020 postseason format, however, is not a good alternative.

RELATED: POSSIBLE PLAYOFF OPPONENTS FOR CAPS COMING INTO FOCUS

Look, I get it. The best-of-five series are fun! The best-of-seven series can feel drawn out by comparison. In a best of five, every game feels really important!

When the NHL was presenting its plan for the 2020 postseason, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about why the league elected not to shorten some of the playoff series to best-of-five as well and he said the players advocated not to do that so as not to cheapen the Stanley Cup. It takes 16 wins to win the Cup. Period. Even in a pandemic.

The NBA used to have best-of-five series in the first round and that made sense because a lot of those first-round matchups were garbage. The NBA does not have nearly the same level of parity as the NHL and the top teams almost always advanced with little drama at all. The first round of the NHL playoffs is fantastic and full of upsets. There's no reason to fast-forward through those series and play fewer games because those series are compelling.

OK, so keep the four-round, best-of-seven format. What about a play-in best of five series?

First, you can't have 24 teams out of 31 (soon to be 32) reach the postseason. For a league that wants its fans and players to care about an 82-game season, having 24 teams make the playoffs renders the regular season nearly meaningless. The only reason the NHL extended the postseason out to 24 teams this year is because the league canceled the end of the regular season and those bottom teams did not have a chance to make a final push for the playoffs like we see every year. There's no reason to extend the field in a normal season.

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While there are few who would advocate expanding the playoffs to 24 teams, there is a case to be made for adding one or two more teams per conference and having a play-in. Even that, to me, is a step too far. When the league expands to 32 teams, exactly half of them will make the playoffs. Do we really need more than that? It's easy to get excited about that prospect now in the midst of the postseason when the level of play is at its best and interest is at its peak, but let's think about the real dog days of the season in January and February. Would devaluing the regular season by adding more teams to the playoff make those January and February games when the season starts to drag more fun to watch or less? We all know the answer to that question.

And, by the way, all of the support to change the playoffs is a reaction to the qualifying series. We haven't seen what this postseason will look like when the playoffs actually get started. Will the round-robin teams end up at a disadvantage when they face off against teams that already played in a do-or-die series? Will injuries become even more rampant in the always grueling postseason because of those teams playing an extra round? It certainly seems like the proponents of adopting the 2020 postseason format are all being quick to declare this a success before seeing how everything ultimately plays out.

The best-of-five series are fun, but this year is different. It's OK to let 2020 be its own success and move on. The only thing the NHL needs to do is get rid of the awful divisional format, take the top eight teams from each conference and re-seed after each round. This year is different. Let's not pretend we need all these changes when life returns to normal.

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Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Brought up to replace the injured Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek's first taste of NHL hockey will come inside the bubble in Toronto. Not exactly the best of circumstances. 

But Vanecek plays an important role on a Capitals team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Should Braden Holtby struggle or get hurt during the playoffs, Washington will need its young back-up goalie to keep their team afloat and let his talented skaters take it from there.

That's why NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May, during an appearance with The Sports Junkies Tuesday, looks forward to seeing Vanecek play a little bit in the round-robin portion of the NHL restart. Ideally, though, it stops there.

"[Vanecek] probably will get one of these games, [the Capitals] said that from the start," May said. "But I hope he doesn't play once they get to the playoff rounds. I think it would be wise to play him in [round robin] games, it's not the end of the world what the seeding is in this. He's a good size goaltender, I think he's about 6'2, and with the training that he's had, he's worked on the fundamentals of his game, he's gotten his conditioning up. He looks very similar to Holtby in net, He's gotten a lot of good reps in American Hockey [League] just like Holtby did around the same age."

And what's the reason why no Caps fan should want to see Vanecek in the postseason? It's simple really. Because this team's best chance at another title revolves around Holtby being a steady and stifling presence between the pipes throughout the playoffs. 

RELATED: PHYSICALITY THE KEY FOR CAPITALS IN PLAYOFFS

"I think the big thing with this is you really don't want to see [Vanecek] in the net after the round robin," he said. "If they're going to win this thing, it's gonna have to be Braden Holtby getting 16 wins. To me, the most important thing is that Holtby plays in the playoffs, the guy's dynamite, no leaky goals out of him."

This could be Holtby's last playoff run with the Capitals as he enters a contract year. The Caps already committed long term money to Nicklas Backstrom this season, they have an Alex Ovechkin extension to worry about and the flat salary cap certainly won't do them any favors either. Not to mention the presence of Samsonov after a stellar rookie season. 

So if this is it, if this is Holtby's last dance in Washington, he at least looks ready to play his best hockey when it matters most.  

"He looks focused and dialed in, and he wants to make sure if he's going out and won't be a Capital anymore he wants to go home with a victory in his last game."

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If the Capitals want to go far in the playoffs, they have to get physical

If the Capitals want to go far in the playoffs, they have to get physical

The first half of Monday's game was a struggle for the Capitals. While both Washington and the Tampa Bay Lightning were initially feeling out one another, the Lightning seemed to get their legs first and jumped out to a 2-0 lead. It looked like the game was headed in the wrong direction...and that's when things got physical. Up to that point, the Caps were playing without any intensity to their game at all. When T.J. Oshie dropped his gloves against Yanni Gourde, however, the goals soon followed. This game was a good reminder for Washington that if they want to go far in the playoffs, they will have to get physical.

"I think that’s what we pride ourselves on," Brenden Dillon said. "When we’re playing our best hockey, we’re playing physical."

There are a lot of ways to win in the playoffs. If there was only one formula for it, everyone would just do that. For this Washington team, however, the key is to be physical.

In 2018, the Capitals came up against a Tampa Bay team in the conference final that was better. Momentum from beating the rival Pittsburgh Penguins carried the Caps to a 2-0 series lead, but the Lightning took over to win the next three and push the Caps to the brink of elimination. Washington responded with one of the most physical games I have ever seen. Not recklessly physical, but purposeful. In my estimation, Game 6's 3-0 win over the Lightning was the greatest playoff game in franchise history. It was a complete victory, but the key was the way in which the Caps bullied Tampa Bay. They pushed them around. The Caps battered, bruised and beat them into submission, outscoring Tampa Bay 7-0 in the final two games of the series.

Washington has incredible skill, they have speed, but at their core, this team is at its best when it is playing physical hockey.

"That’s a big part of our identity as a team, no fun to play against and yet still have the ability to execute skill plays when we get in those situations," head coach Todd Reirden said. "But for us, the physicality that we can bring on a nightly basis, we feel that really allows us to have success and tilt the ice in our favor."

RELATED: OBSERVATIONS FROM THE CAPS' LOSS

This isn't just about 2018, it was evident again on Monday.

When it comes to just pure talent, the Caps are a little behind Tampa Bay. When the game was being played with little intensity and skill was able to take over, the Lighting had the edge. From the first shift of the second period, Tom Wilson clearly came in trying to change the momentum and spent his first shift hitting everything that moved. It did not stick, however, until Oshile's fight.

Down 2-0, Oshie dropped the gloves with Gourde. Less than five minutes later, the game was tied at 2.

"We started to create some momentum in probably the second half of the second and then really took it to a different level after T.J.'s fight really inspired our group and then we just built on that," Reirden said.

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He added, "I just felt like as we got going now we were finding our stride a little bit more and then eventually we were able to wear them down a little with our physical play. I thought the more we invested physically, then we were able to see some benefits of it."

For the Caps to win a Stanley Cup, several factors will be important. Alex Ovechkin will have to continue to be elite, the defense will have to improve from what we saw in the regular season, Braden Holtby will have to be at the top of his game, etc., etc. But the key to all of it, just like in 2018, will be the Caps playing a physical game and wearing down their opponents.

"When we’re playing our best hockey, we have the skill to go with it and the speed as well," Dillon said. "Come playoff time, we know we’re built for this style of game."

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