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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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Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Friday’s loss to the Florida Panthers was disappointing in a number of ways for the Capitals, but some good may yet come from it with the emergence of the third line.

A poor performance in the opening frame led to Todd Reirden switching up his lines to start the second. No change had a greater effect than the addition of Jakub Vrana to the third line in place of Andre Burakovsky to play with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly.

The move yielded instant results.

Connolly scored his first goal of the season less than two minutes into the period and added an assist. Vrana also recorded a goal and an assist, while Eller had a three-point night with three assists.

“It was just to make something happen,” Eller said, “Not that [Burakovsky] did something wrong, but just to make something happen and it worked. We kept riding the wave from there on and got two in that period. That seemed to work so that was positive.”

Vrana, Eller and Connolly were three players who had been playing well for the Caps, but were just not producing.

Heading into Friday’s game, Vrana and Eller both had only one point apiece on the season. Connolly had four, but three of those points came earlier in the season while he was skating on the team’s top line.

Friday was his first goal of the season.

“It’s good to get a goal,” Connolly said. “Getting some assists and all that and being a factor on some goals, but it’s nice to see one go in. I’ve had a lot of chances to start the year, thought I’ve been playing well. Lot more shots, lot more chances than I had last year and throughout the last two seasons per game. So I feel I’m ahead of the game right now in terms of that.”

Depth scoring has been a major weakness for the Caps so far in the early season. Washington had gotten only two bottom six goals prior to Friday’s game, and both came in the team’s blowout win over Boston in the opener.

They needed a spark to get offense from the bottom six, and they just may have found it on Friday with that third line combination.

Don’t be surprised to see that Vrana-Eller-Connolly trio stick together in Vancouver for the Caps’ next game against the Canucks.

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Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

The Capitals managed to earn a point on Friday in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, but the game felt like a missed opportunity for Washington. After giving up four goals in the first period, seven power plays including two 5-on-3s, and two power play goals, the Caps knew they had no one to blame but themselves for the loss.

“We were still not quite there maybe emotionally,” Lars Eller said.

At least not for the first period. The Caps allowed four goals in the opening 20 minutes to dig themselves into a 4-1 hole. Each goal came from the slot as the Caps had no control over the front of their own net.

“Just tough to start that way, to kind of dig ourselves a big hole,” Brett Connolly said. “Obviously, it’s good to come back and get a point but we don’t need to do that to ourselves. It takes a lot of energy to get back in that game.”

Washington battled back to tie the game at 4, but penalties ultimately derailed their momentum, allowing Florida to retake the lead.

After scoring three straight goals, the Caps took three minor penalties in the final three minutes of the second period.

Alex Ovechkin was called for interference on Aaron Ekblad as he made no attempt to play a loose puck that trickled past the Florida defenseman. He was clearly focused on delivering the hit and nothing else.

Less than a minute later, Eller was caught on the ice a tad early, and Washington was called for too many men.

“I see Backy coming for a change, they had full possession,” Eller said. “I don't see behind my back, I think the guys are telling me he has one skate over so I think it was an unnecessary call, but what am I going to say? It's a tough one.”

With 1:15 of a two-man advantage to work with, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the go-ahead goal late in the period.

Even after a furious comeback, the Caps could not escape the second with the score tied because of the penalties.

Just 43 seconds after Huberdeau’s goal, Washington went right back to 5-on-3. Evgeny Kuznetsov was tossed from a faceoff by the linesman and argued the call, eventually earning himself an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He said something he shouldn't have said to the referee,” Reirden said of the call.

The Caps' penalty problems were exacerbated by the continued problems of the penalty kill.

Heading into Friday's game, Washington was only killing off 72.2 percent of the power plays they faced. They allowed another two power play goals Friday as they continued to struggle when facing the extra man.

“We have room for improvement for sure,” Reirden said of his penalty kill. “It’s a new system, new with the way we’re killing, its new personnel. We’re learning. We’re missing a key guy in Tom on that as well. It’s not easy, either, when you’re 5-on-3 when they’ve got talented players that can convert in that spot. It’s definitely a work in progress and I didn't expect it to go smoothly to start with. That’s one of the areas that we knew was gonna be new to our team this year and it’s gonna continue to take some work. It’s something that definitely is a work in progress.”

Mistakes put the Caps down 4-1, they put them down 5-4, they cost them a valuable point against a previously winless Panthers team before a four-game road trip through Canada, and they are ultimately why the defending Stanley Cup champions are only 3-2-2 to start the season.

And they know it.

“We’re still trying to find our game,” Connolly said. “Would we have liked to have picked up where we left off? Yes. But it’s not easy. We played a lot of hockey last year and a short summer and you come in here and there’s a lot of distractions, a lot of that kind of stuff. We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some not so good things.

"I think if you look at last season we weren't very good either at the start. We weren't at our best. Just take the positives and know that we can overcome that. It hasn’t been disastrous. We’re still getting points, we’re still above .500 right now with a tough couple back-to-backs to start the year. So not the worst start, but obviously we have another level.”

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