NHL playoff format not to blame for Round 1 surprises

The Columbus Blue Jackets were given an extended break after sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning, which presented some pros and cons for head coach John Tortorella to consider when preparing his team for their tilt against the Bruins.

As these National Hockey League playoffs began, and the annual bleat and cry arose from those who dislike the playoff format, we made a point of asking as many players, coaches and front office people as possible what they thought. Turn the tape recorder off, put the notebook away, and just talk.

The answers? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this kind of unanimity.

To the people who compete from October to April for every possible point, their reasoning is that the reward for finishing high in the standings should always be a low-seeded opponent. “If I’m the Leafs,” a Winnipeg Jet told me, “what’s the point of the regular season?”

Toronto finished fifth in the East and drew No. 2 Boston instead of, by rights, the fourth-ranked New York Islanders. Had Toronto have won, they would have played No. 1 Tampa.

But we all know what happened to the Lightning. So let’s dig into this a bit, shall we?

You may have noticed that the complainers aren’t complaining much anymore, after the four wild card teams all won their series against the four division winners. If ever there was evidence that imperfection will arise from whichever format you choose, the spring of 2019 was ground zero.

One of the things we’ve learned, is exactly what Tampa Bay learned: The team that has to hustle down the stretch to make the playoffs comes in hot, while the Tampas and Calgarys — who wrapped spots up long ago — become ripe for upset.

“For six days in April,” lamented Tampa coach Jon Cooper, whose team had won 62 regular season games, “Columbus was the better team.”

“You look at Colorado,” Calgary goalie Mike Smith said after his Flames were eliminated. “You know they were buzzing going into the playoffs and playing their best hockey with a month left in the season. They get in and they kept that going in the playoffs.

“We played our best hockey not with a week left in the season. We were resting guys and didn’t really play a meaningful game for quite some time before the playoffs,” Smith said. “They were better at this time of the year. It’s pretty simple.”

So, let’s take stock here, now that one of the craziest first rounds this 30-year hockey writer has ever seen has finally completed. I went .500 on my Round 1 predictions and am ecstatic about it.

Those who dislike the divisional playoff format would prefer a standard 1 vs. 8, 2-7, 3-6, 4-5 format. Those who like the current format — like me — will point out that six of the eight first-round series in 2019 qualify as “rivalry series” between two teams from the same division.

The theory is, this format gives us a better chance of a Battle of Alberta, a Battle of Ontario, Calgary vs. Vancouver or Montreal vs. Toronto. Those series, those rivalries, are a bird in the hand — we know how great they can be — whereas pitting top seeds against lower seeds works in theory, but does not always provide an advantage.

Let’s do the math:

In the West this year, the “underdogs” won three of the four series’. Out East, the “underdogs” won two of the four. That means in eight series the lower seeds won five times.

In 2018, there was one upset in Round 1. In 2017, there were three. In 2016, three. In 2015, three, In 2014, four. In 2013, the first year of the divisional format, there were five.

So, since the new format was engaged, the NHL’s opening round averages, basically, three-and-a-half upsets each year. Or, three one year, four the next — in a format where the four division winners are guaranteed to get the two wild-card clubs.

Sure, Leafs fans may not like meeting Boston every year, while Bruins fans are fine with seeing Toronto every spring. But truly, Canadians outside the GTA love the Leafs-Bruins rivalry, and Toronto had every chance of winning that series in six games. They blew it, and there’s no reason to believe that a matchup against the Islanders would have ended any differently for Toronto.

As for the two top seeds in both conferences, in a league with increasing parity and an annual pack of teams fighting for those last four wild card spots, can we not count on the 1 vs. 8 and 2 vs. 7 to continue to bring the same dynamic to Round 1 that it did this year? Does anyone want the red-hot wild dcard team anymore?

It’s hockey’s great cliché, that any team can win on any given night. That “there are no easy games anymore.”

And there are no easy playoff picks either.

The playoffs are going to confound us, no matter what the format.


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