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Daniel Winnik calls current playoff format 'the stupidest thing ever'

Daniel Winnik calls current playoff format 'the stupidest thing ever'

If you’re frustrated by the NHL’s current playoff format, Daniel Winnik feels your pain.

The playoff format has become a topic of conversation around the NHL recently as the top three teams in the NHL and four of the top five all hail from the Metropolitan Division. Because of the league’s divisional playoff format, the first place team will play a wild-card team in the first round, while the second and third place team will have to play each other with the winner of each series squaring off in the second round.

That guarantees that two of the top three teams in the NHL will be eliminated by the second round and that just doesn’t make much sense to Winnik.

“It's stupid,” he said. “It's the stupidest thing ever. I don't know why it's not 1 to 8, I don't know why we got away from that.”

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The obvious flaw of the news system is that, by restricting the top three teams to play within one division, in years like this where there is one super conference, it means an unfavorable first-round matchup for a team that is one of the best in the entire league. As of Monday, Columbus and Pittsburgh are second and third in the entire NHL standings and their reward would be the chance to play one another in the very first round. Also, by adding a wild card that does not stay within the division, there is an obvious benefit for a team like the New York Rangers to finish fourth and switch to the Atlantic side of the bracket.

There is also a potential for the third place team in one division to actually finish lower in the standings than a wild card team, but not have to play the best team in the conference. We saw that in 2016. The Detroit Red Wings had the eighth-best record in the Eastern Conference, but the third best in the Atlantic. Instead of having to play the top-seeded Capitals in the first round, they played the Tampa Bay Lightning who finished second in the Atlantic, but sixth overall in the conference.

What makes things worse, as Winnik points out, is that the current playoff system isn’t even that good and doing what is was originally set up to accomplish.

“Part of the point of it was to reduce travel, but it only reduces travel if you finish in your division, if you finish second and third,” he said.

In theory, having teams play within the division should cut down on travel, but as wild card teams can come from either division, it fails to accomplish that. Last season featured a first-round matchup between the Anaheim Ducks, winners of the Pacific, and a wild card Nashville Predators team. And, since the Predators switched into the Pacific bracket, once they beat the Ducks they had to play the San Jose Sharks in the second round.

If geography isn't your thing, let's just say Nashville is nowhere close to either Anaheim or San Jose.

Most damning, however, is the fact that the divisonal foramt undercuts rivalries by making it more likely that rivals play in the earlier rounds.

First and foremost, the divisional format was created to develop rivalries. By pitting divisional teams against one another, that means teams that play one another frequently in the regular season are more likely to play in the playoffs every year. But, to use the Caps as an example, unless Pittsburgh makes it into the playoffs as a wild card team and play in the Atlantic, they will always play Washington in the first or second round, never in the conference final.

“You can't manufacture a rivalry,” Winnik said. “There's already rivalries between us and Pittsburgh, us and the Rangers. The way I see it now, I'm sure the fans are getting sick of seeing the same two teams play each other in the first round, second round.”

In the previous format, the winner of each division was one of the top three seeds in each conference and then the remaining five teams were seeded according to the standings regardless of division. No. 1 would play No. 8, No. 2 would play No. 7, etc. and each team was re-seeded at the end of each round. So instead of a set bracket, the highest seed was guaranteed to play the lowest seed in each round.

As an illustration, and bearing in mind that the NHL has gone from six divisions to four, here is what the first-round playoff matchups in the east would look like as of Monday:

1. Washington Capitals (Metropolitan winner)
8. Toronto Maple Leafs

2. Montreal Canadiens (Atlantic winner)
7. Boston Bruins

3. Columbus Blue Jackets
6. Ottawa Senators

4. Pittsburgh Penguins
5. New York Rangers

This format, however, is not without its faults.

“The other way wasn't perfect,” Winnik said. “For years this division, the southeast, the winner of that division should have been out of the playoffs, but at least that made a little more sense.”

It should also be noted that if there were no upsets in the first round, the above projection would still give a second-round matchup between Washington and Pittsburgh. But it does seem fairer than a format that moves New York down to seventh simply because of their division and forces the second and third best teams in the NHL to play one another in the first round.

That's a concept that clearly has Winnik a bit…befuddled.

“I don't understand it and I think everyone hopes it gets fixed after this season.”

MORE CAPITALS: Oshie tries to remain 'extremley present' even in a contract year

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Red Penguins: The story you've never heard about the Penguins' partnership with Russia's Red Army hockey team

Red Penguins: The story you've never heard about the Penguins' partnership with Russia's Red Army hockey team

It may be the greatest hockey story you've never heard of and it's almost too crazy to believe.

The upcoming Universal documentary Red Penguins tells the story of how the Pittsburgh Penguins developed a partnership with a Russian hockey team. But it wasn't just any hockey team, it was CSKA Moscow, the government-run Red Army hockey team, the most storied hockey team in Russia. They had no idea what they were in for.

Barely three minutes into the movie produced by Gabe Polsky - whose 2014 documentary "Red Army" covered the four decades of dominance by the Russian national hockey team from the 1950s to the 1990s - and you are quickly caught up in a wild ride with Howard Baldwin and Tom Ruta, Pittsburgh's owners at the time, talking about how crazy the idea of getting involved with CSKA really was.

It's never really clear who had the idea and who approached them to form the partnership so you are left wondering why exactly the organization decided to take this gamble. Weirder still: The tangential involvement of celebrity investors like actor Michael J. Fox. 

Even if the movie initially feels rushed to start, however, you soon find out why: Because the real story is what happens when ownership sends eccentric lawyer Steven Warshaw to Russia to manage business there. That's when things get truly crazy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a hockey team that never had to wonder where its resources would come from suddenly had to think about how to make money. Meanwhile, the American investors had no idea what they were stepping into. The Iron Curtain may have fallen, but what Russia was really like behind it was still largely a mystery to everyone. 

"I expected that the country would be somewhat functioning," Warshaw said. "It turned out I was wrong."

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A strip club in the arena, strippers on the ice, the Russian mob, bears, stolen money and even an alleged relationship with Disney all followed. Russia was a country in which there were few rules in the post-Cold War era and Warshaw and the Penguins found this out very quickly.

As the team grew in popularity, so did the interest of the Russian mob. Interestingly enough, the ownership group always expected their Russian counterparts to steal from them, but this only became a problem when they began stealing too much.

A plea for help from the Russian Army to combat the influence of the mob led to this telling quote from a Russian general: "I never had any problems with the criminals. If they paid on time then the arrangement worked.”

It wasn't until people involved with the team began to die that the ownership group realized they needed to end their partnership and get Warshaw out.

It's a story too crazy to be fiction and you'll have to see it to believe it.

Red Penguins will be available to stream via iTunes, Amazon and on demand on cable systems across the country on Aug. 4.

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T.J. Oshie's turning point fight, Richard Panik stays hot and the Caps get physical

T.J. Oshie's turning point fight, Richard Panik stays hot and the Caps get physical

The Capitals opened round-robin play with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, putting them in third place of the round-robin standings. Washington rallied from a 2-0 deficit and was the better team in the third period and overtime, but they walk away with only the single point.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

It’s still early

The team that played the first half of this game wasn’t very good, but the team that played the second half was much better. A lot of that was just getting back into game rhythm so it’s still too soon to tell how good this team really is yet. Are they the team that blew through the first half of the season or the team that looked like they couldn’t beat anyone from January to March?

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Physical play is key to this team’s identity

When the Caps began to get more physical, the game turned around. At its core, Washington is a physical team. A 2-0 game turned around because of a fight in the second period (more on that later). This is how they are successful and this is how they will need to continue to play.

Holtby looks completely different

Braden Holtby looks like a completely new goalie from the one that could not even manage a .900 save percentage in the regular season. He made a number of difficult saves and, critically, he made a number of those saves without giving up any rebounds. Rebound control has always been a strength of Holtby’s so to see him swallow up shots without giving up any second or third chance opportunities is a good sign.

Holtby was always going to be key to the team’s playoff success, but that is even more true without the safety net of Ilya Samsonov as a backup. This was a good game for Holtby and a good sign for Washington.

What to make of the power play

Not counting the nine-second power play the Caps had at the end of overtime, Washington had three opportunities with the extra man. The first two looked about as bad as any we have seen this season. The third looked very good and resulted in a goal. I hope the third power play was the result of adjustments made on the first two efforts and not just a result of a talented team getting a token goal.

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Turning point

The Caps were down 2-0 and looked like they were headed for a lackadaisical loss until T.J. Oshie dropped the gloves with Yanni Gourde.

Less than five minutes later, the game was tied at two and the Caps were the better team from then until the shootout.

Play of the game

Midway through the first period, Lars Eller turned the puck over to Brayden Point in the neutral zone. He took it into the offensive zone and handed it off to Nikita Kucherov. Michal Kempny forced him wide, but Kucherov let off an incredible shot to the far corner to beat Holtby. When the defense does its job, the goalie is ready and you are still able to pick your spot and score, that’s a dangerous sniper.

Stat of the game

Richard Panik scored Washington’s first goal of the game. He has been on a roll even before the pause.

Also an important stat: the Caps did not give up a single power play to Tampa Bay.

Quote of the game

Brenden Dillon on physical play:

“Yeah, I think that’s what we pride ourselves on. When we’re playing our best hockey, we’re playing physical. When we’re playing our best hockey, we have the skill to go with it and the speed as well. Come playoff time, we know we’re built for this style of game. We know when we’re at our best and playing Caps hockey. We’re finishing our checks, we’re hard on the forecheck and playing hard in the D zone. I think altogether tonight, we were pretty happy with our performance, but at the end of the day we’ve got to find a way to get an extra win and keep pushing forward for the next game.”

Runner up goes to Pat Maroon who was asked how his legs felt in overtime.

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