Every hockey fan cannot wait until Spring time when the Playoffs start. Playoff hockey in the NHL is 2 full months of exciting action with up to 4-5 games per night. Only one team gets to the 16 wins needed to hoist the ultimate chalice of champions. The Stanley Cup is what 32 teams try to win every year with 16 getting to play more than 82 games. The playoff format determines who plays who and when. It determines the 4 teams the eventual Stanley Cup Champion will face. This format is a testament to the times by changing over the years. Some of them are good while others could use improvement. This year’s playoffs are several months out but we can already start predicting the matchups.
The current playoff format is more designed to have rivals meet early in the playoffs. The top 3 teams in each division qualify for the playoffs with 2 wildcard teams in each conference. The best team in the conference plays the #2 wildcard and the other division winner plays the #1 wildcard. The 2nd and 3rd best teams in each division play each other. This format is good for the first round because it’s fair but the second round is not. The format is fixed meaning the winner of #1 vs #4 plays the winner of #2 and #3. The second round is a problem because of the matchups.
Let’s take 2016 for example. The Dallas Stars (1) and St. Louis Blues (2) played each other in the second round. These 2 teams were the best in the west in terms of regular season points. The San Jose Sharks (6) played the Nashville Predators (8). The teams are not re-seeded after the first round. It makes sense because it is technically considered a “divisional playoff” but this format could be better if teams are re-seeded. The two best teams in the conference should not play before the Conference Final.
Covid Playoffs in 2021
The 2020 playoffs were chaotic with 24 teams in. Play-in rounds, best-of-5s, and more chaos was that one. Unless another global pandemic hits, the NHL will not return to the 2020 format for a long time. The Covid Pandemic shaped the 2021 NHL Playoffs. The Stars played in a division with 5 “Eastern Conference” teams with that dramatic reshape. Familiar foes
A revision of this format could maximize entertainment in terms of rivals in the Conference Final or the Stanley Cup Final. Imagine the Stars and Blues in the Stanley Cup Final, or the Bruins and Maple Leafs in the big dance. Imagine something like an Avalanche/Flyers first round. The travel for teams multiplies but so does the fun!
1979-1980 Possibly Had it Right
Adding to the previous scenarios is something the NHL already did. The best played the worst in 1980, #1 vs #16, #2 vs #15 etc. Those playoffs in 1980 matched up some interesting combinations. The first round consisted of matchups such as Islanders/Kings, Blackhawks/Blues, and Sabres/Canucks. The Stanley Cup Final consisted of now two Eastern Conference teams with the Islanders facing off against the Flyers.
Here are the current matchups with this format if the playoffs started today if you take points percentage into consideration and not just points.
- #1 Bruins vs #16 Flames
- #2 Hurricanes vs #15 Oilers
- #3 Devils vs #14 Penguins
- #4 Lightning vs #13 Capitals
- #5 Maple Leafs vs #12 Kings
- #6 Jets vs #11 Wild
- #7 Stars vs #10 Rangers
- #8 Kraken vs #9 Golden Knights
The possibilities are endless with a format like in 1980. The five best teams in the league are all from the same conference.
You have to beat the best to be the best. Even the last teams that make the playoffs have a fighting chance. The #8 seeded Kings won it all in 2012, beating #1, #2, and #3 with a combined record of 12-2. The best teams in the playoffs need to play each other in either the Conference Final or the Stanley Cup Final, not in the second round. Playoff hockey is always exciting no matter the matchups. The current format is alright but it can be better.
Photo Credit: Stanley Cup Twitter