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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.

RELATED: FIVE STATS TO EXPLAIN WHY CAPITALS LOST GAME 6 TO PENGUINS

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.

MORE CAPITALS: CAPITALS WERE ENTITLED TO NOTHING: NEWS, NOTES FROM GAME 6 LOSS

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NHL Playoff 2019 Roundup: Blues shutout Sharks 5-0 to win Game 5

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NHL Playoff 2019 Roundup: Blues shutout Sharks 5-0 to win Game 5

The St. Louis Blues won a decisive Game 5 against the San Jose Sharks 5-0, pushing the Sharks to the brink of elimination.

The Blues are now one win away from their first Stanley Cup Final since the 1969-70 season, where they lost to the Boston Bruins in a sweep.

St. Louis started the scoring early when Oskar Sundqvist netted his second goal of the series in the first five minutes of the game. 

Jaden Schwartz then tallied his first goal of the game off a juicy rebound in front of Martin Jones to start the scoring in the second period. It was Schwartz's 10th goal of the playoffs, which tied him for third all-time in Blues history for goals in the postseason.

Vladimir Tarasenko added to the Blues lead off a penalty shot. He's the first player in Blues franchise history to score a penalty shot goal in the playoffs.

Schwartz then added two more goals in the third period for a hat-trick. The first came on a 5-on-3 power play advantage off a scramble in front of the net, and the second came from a backdoor one-timer pass from Tarasenko.

Schwartz now has 12 goals these playoffs, and it's his second hat-trick of the playoffs.

Blues goalie Jordan Binnington recorded 21 saves for a shutout, and he's the first rookie goalie to accomplish that feat for the Blues.

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NHL Playoff 2019 Roundup: Blues pull even with Sharks with 2-1 win

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NHL Playoff 2019 Roundup: Blues pull even with Sharks with 2-1 win

The St. Louis Blues' two-goal first period powered them to a win over the San Jose Sharks, and the series is now tied.

The Blues started with a goal 35 seconds into the game. Ivan Barbashev picked off a Brent Burns exit pass and flung it towards the net for the games opening goal. 

Barbashev is the second Blues player to score in the first minute of a game these playoffs. Jaden Schwartz is the other player.

Tyler Bozak scored the game-winning goal for the Blues on a power play off a scramble in front of the net.

The Sharks responded when Thomas Hertl poked the puck past the goal line after Jordan Binnington thought he had the puck covered. Hertl now has 10 goals this postseason for the Sharks, and the team now features 10 or more players to score 10+ goals in the playoffs for the second time in franchise history.

Binnington's 29 save performance gave him his 10th win of the playoffs, the most of any Blues goaltender in franchise history.

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