June 30, 2022

Hochman: Dear NHL, change the playoff format back to the traditional 1-8, 2-7, 3-6, 4-5 format | Benjamin Hochmann

ST. PAUL, Minn. — I don’t like this first-round elimination match.

Well, let’s be clear. I love this game – Blues! Wild! Two of the four best teams in the conference! – but not in the first round.

Each team fought too hard in the regular season to have the other as an opponent from the start.

But that’s how the National Hockey League does it.

And how no other major league does.

In 2013-2014, the NHL made things happen. Now the league had its heart in the right place. In an effort to grow rivalries and keep playoffs in the same geographic regions, the new playoff format is as we know it now.

Eight teams per conference. The top three teams in each division advance to the playoffs. The next two teams, regardless of division, are the two wildcard teams. And then the division winners play wild cards and the No. 2-3 teams – from the same division – play each other.

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And, yeah, it’s fun when, say, the Blues play the Blackhawks in the first round. The two hadn’t faced each other in the playoffs since 2002, but starting in 2014 they met that year and in 2016 as well.

The Wild have the second most points this year in the Western Conference.

The Blues had the fourth plus.

It’s a game for later in the playoffs. But here we are, looking forward to Thursday’s Game 6 in this first-round series.

“I think 1-8 the traditional way would be better,” Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly said before Game 1. “If you look at the standings and how many points we’ve had, you’ve got two teams that think they’re going to be in better positions. It would be nice to see that change.

This change would make the first-round matchups: 1-8, 2-7, 3-6 and 4-5. In that scenario, yes, No. 1 Colorado (119 points) would still have faced Nashville (97 points) in the first round. But Minnesota No. 2 (113) would have faced Dallas No. 7 (98), perhaps an easier foe than the Blues. The 3-6 game would have pitted Calgary (111) against Los Angeles (99).

And that, of course, would put St. Louis (109) as the fourth team against Edmonton (104). For what it’s worth, the Blues would have had home-court advantage in this series as well. Yes, Edmonton is pretty good – the Oilers have two of the best players on this planet (maybe any planet). But overall, the Wild is a tougher opponent.

Blues coach Craig Berube was asked before Game 1 about the current playoff format.

“Yes, I was involved in both,” said the longtime player and coach. “It’s tough. You have two good teams that get into it straight away. It’s not just us, there are also other teams in the league. I really don’t think about it too much. It’s not my job. The NHL makes these decisions and that’s it. I don’t focus too much on that.

It seems to happen every year.

Why penalize a good team?

Why make it so that a No. 2 or No. 3 team can be knocked out in the first round?

A terrible turn of events in this regard occurred in the spring of 2018.

In the Eastern Conference, the Bruins missed the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Division by one point. Thus, Tampa Bay (113 points) won the Atlantic and faced New Jersey (97 points) in this first round. Meanwhile, the No. 2 Bruins were stuck facing the No. 3 Maple Leafs, who weren’t just the No. 3 team in their division — but also their conference.

What a terrible draw for both teams. Someone had to lose. Sure enough, it was Toronto.

But then Boston (again, the No. 2 team in the entire conference) played out its second-round series against No. 1 Tampa Bay. This should have been the conference final. Alas, it was the semi-finals. And Tampa Bay ended Boston’s season.

Historically, the franchise most impacted by this configuration is the Washington hockey team.

The Capitols have won the Presidents’ Trophy (as the team with the most points) in consecutive seasons: 2015-16 and 2016-17. Both years they lost in the second round to Pittsburgh, which suddenly had an easy road to the Cup against lower-ranked teams.

Then again, the Presidents’ trophy is cursed, anyway.

But so is this new playoff setup. Make it traditional again.

Give all the best teams the best chance to advance to the first round.

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