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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.


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.


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Remembering the highlights of each of the Capitals' American players

Remembering the highlights of each of the Capitals' American players

The Capitals have a superstar Russian, an incredible Swedish center, a Canadian netminder, but the team also boasts several American players as well. On the 4th of July when American celebrate the birth of our nation, lets put down the barbecue, apple pie and fireworks for a few minutes to remember some of the top highlights from each of the team's Americans.

Travis Boyd: 4 goals for Hayden

In Feb. 2018, Boyd turned hardship into an inspirational moment. While with the Hershey Bears, Boyd's daughter, Hayden, developed a serious infection and had to go to the hospital. Boyd went with her on a Sunday and did not leave until Friday morning to prepare for that night's game, a game in which he would score four goals.

John Carlson: The golden goal

Carlson has numerous highlights from his career with the Caps, but on Indepence Day it seems only fitting to look back at his biggest goal for his country. Carlson represented Team USA in the 2010 World Junior Championships which was hosted by Canada that year. USA made it all the way to the final where the played the host nation. Tied at 5 through regulation, Carlson scored the golden goal off a 2-on-1 as he caught the goalie leaning anticipating the pass.

Nic Dowd: Historic penalty shot

In Game 5 of the Caps' series against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2019, Nic Dowd was slashed by defenseman Dougie Hamilton while he was in alone on goalie Petr Mrazek. Dowd was awarded the first penalty shot of his career and he delivered, dekeing right to open up Mrazek's pads and tucking the puck through the 5-hole. In addition to being his first penalty shot goal, the goal was also Dowd's first-career playoff point.

The goal also had some historic significance for the team as it was Washington's first ever playoff penalty shot goal.


Garnet Hathaway: Shows his toughness against the Rangers

On Oct. 18, the Caps hosted the New York Rangers and it proved to be an pretty epic night for Hathaway. He was knocked out of the game in the second period with a broken nose after a big hit from Jacob Trouba, came back in the third, drew a cross-check, fought Brendan Smith (again, with a broken nose), the Caps scored on the resulting power play and Hathaway returned to score the empty-netter.

That’s a pretty unbelievable game.

Nick Jensen: Assisting on goal No. 700

Jensen has been with the Capitals for about a year and a half, but he will forever be linked to the team's greatest franchise player thanks to one assist.

Against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 22, Jensen grabbed a loose puck behind the offensive goal line and sent it back behind the net to keep the offensive cycle going. That allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov to find Alex Ovechkin who scored career goal No. 700.

T.J. Oshie: T.J. Sochi

Who could forget about Oshie's incredible performance at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi?

Playing against Team Russia, USA leaned heavily on Oshie in the shootout. He would score four times on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky as USA walked away victorious.

Stay connected to the Capitals with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.


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The biggest 'what ifs' for the 2019-20 Capitals' season: What if Vrana had a top power play role all season?

The biggest 'what ifs' for the 2019-20 Capitals' season: What if Vrana had a top power play role all season?

We are looking at some of the biggest “what ifs” for the Capitals for the 2019-20 season.

Today’s what if: What if Jakub Vrana had a top power-play role all season?

Jakub Vrana may be having the best season that no one is talking about. When you are teammates with one of the best goal scorers of all-time and a bonafide superstar, other players tend to get overshadowed. Just ask Nicklas Backstrom.

Vrana scored 24 even-strength goals in the 2019-20 season, tied for 11th in the NHL. It’s only four behind David Pastrnak, three behind Leon Draisaitl, one behind Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, tied with Jack Eichel and more goals than players like Mika Zibanejad (23), Nathan MacKinnon (23), Connor McDavid (23) and Brad Marchand. So why isn’t Vrana viewed as the same caliber offensive player as those others? The answer is the power play.

While Vrana ranks 11th in even-strength goals, he ranks tied for 35th overall with 25 goals. That’s right, he has one single power-play goal this season. The 10 players ahead of him in the even-strength goals list averaged just over 10 power-play goals for the season. An extra 10 goals would have tied Vrana with McDavid for 10th in the NHL.


Vrana did not start the season on the top player play unit. He was actually only moved there late in the season as Washington’s power play struggled. Relegated to the forgotten and rarely used second unit, Vrana only recently started to see more opportunity on the power play resulting in just one goal which came on Jan. 11.

But what if Vrana had been on the top power-play unit all season? Would he have racked up enough goals to garner national attention?


Probably not as much as you may think.

First, let’s remember that the power play has been terrible this season. It ranks 17th in the NHL overall, but is actually 24th since Dec. 23. Second, there is not a natural spot where Vrana fits on the top power play. He is a sniper, his best asset is shooting and he is not going to replace the player tasked with taking the one-timer from the far faceoff dot, Alex Ovechkin. Vrana was playing the goal line in place of Evgeny Kuznetsov. Based on how Washington's power play has worked the last few years, this spot is primarily for setting up the slot or bouncing it back to the half-wall. Vrana is a better set-up player than many give him credit, but this role really does not put him in the best position to use his shot. More time on the power play should increase his goal total just as a result of him being on the ice more, but based on how the power play has played and how he is used, it probably would not have boosted his totals into being one of the top 10-15 scorers in the NHL this season.

Stay connected to the Capitals with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.