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Why NHL’s new playoff format was amazingly successful (with one nagging complaint)

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The ice has been melted down. Hockey’s Holy Grail has been raised by everyone from the Conn Smythe winner to the Los Angeles Kings’ front office interns. The last drops of Moet on the dressing room floor have been mopped. 

The 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs have been over since Friday night, leaving some time for perceptive reflection on this query:

Was this the best NHL postseason in decades?

I had this conversation with a number of veteran hockey writers while covering the playoffs – men and women who have watched more puck than I’ve taken breaths on this celestial rock. Unanimously, they praised these playoffs as some of the most well-played, unpredictable and entertaining they could recall.

There’s some supporting evidence for this. Twelve of the 15 playoff series went six games or more, with the Boston Bruins’ five-game win over the Detroit Red Wings, the Montreal Canadiens’ sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Kings’ win over the Rangers in the Final finishing early.

Seven series went seven games; five of them featured comebacks by the eventual winning team in which they were down at least 3-2 in the series. The Rangers rallied from 3-1 down to the Penguins. The Kings, of course, became only the fourth team in NHL history to rally from an 0-3 hole to win a playoff series, as the expense of their rivals the San Jose Sharks in Round 1.

The Kings played the Sharks and the Ducks – their two geographic rivals – before taking on the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks that eliminated the Kings in the 2013 conference final. Their series culminated in a classic, insanely chaotic overtime win in Game 7 – one of three road Game 7 victories for the Kings, an NHL record.

The Rangers? They needed seven games to oust Philly, and then another seven to eliminate Sidney Crosby and the Penguins – two classic division rivals. That’s after Columbus won its first-ever playoff games and gave Pittsburgh a memorable scare. Oh, and Montreal upset their arch rivals from Boston in a seven-game thriller, culminating in Milan Lucic threatening to kill everyone.

The quality of hockey was incredible (thanks, Western Conference!). The tension was off the charts. The series were anything but predictable, sometimes in victors but always in methodology. We had suspension controversies and questionable calls. We had water bottle squirting become a thing. And we had a moment of striking humanity as a star player lost his mother, he played the next game and his team rallied around him to go on a run that lead to them to the Cup Final. 

And that’s not even mentioning the three overtime games in the Stanley Cup Final, including the double-overtime one that ended the postseason.

Exhale …

Why were the playoffs so damn good? The luck of the draw would be one explanation, but that would ignore the fact that the NHL made its own luck.

The new playoff format – shifting the League from a 1-through-8 conference based setup to a divisional playoff format complete with wild card teams – was created to force rivalry series in earlier rounds. And it’s rivalry series we got.

Sure, these emotional matchups didn’t lead to the really cool stuff like line brawls – we can’t expect the inert, placatory brand of NHL hockey in the regular season to suddenly change course in the playoffs, can we? – but they did lead to some outstanding lengthy battles. Is it coincidence that the Flyers pushed the Rangers to seven? Or that the Blackhawks and Blues played six overtime periods in six games? Or that the Kings staged their historic rally against a team they collectively loathe?

What about this notion: That the Western Conference, which produced the best hockey and best teams in the tourmanent, stayed fresher because of the new format. Chicago played St. Louis and then Minnesota, instead of San Jose and then maybe L.A in the second round. LA stayed in California for two rounds.

Curious why the Kings weren't "The Skating Dead" by the end of their series with the Rangers? It's because, for the first time in NHL history, the California team didn't have a travel disadvantage. 

(And the whole format helped TV viewers, too.)

Maybe this is all the playoff format, maybe not; but compared to what might have been, there’s no question the pieces fit better than had the format not changed.

The Conference Format 

The two tests for this format vs. the previous one:

1. Did the divisional format reduce or increase the drama in the playoffs races?

2. Would the conference format have offered better playoff matchups? 

We previously covered the playoff races back in early April and found that (a) there were just as many teams in the hunt as there would have been under the conference format but (b) the number of moving parts were reduced. The four non-wild card series were locked in place with roughly six games left on the schedule.

How would the playoff format have looked under the conference setup?

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Under the previous format and assuming two division, Boston still plays Detroit, Pittsburgh still plays Columbus, Anaheim still plays Dallas and Colorado still plays Minnesota. But then we have some deviations: The Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers swap first-round dance partners, as do the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings.

Now, should we decide to get “what-iffy” in the Eastern Conference, perhaps the Flyers advance past a Ben Bishop-less Lightning team and the Rangers still oust the Canadiens. (Something they may have done with or without a healthy Carey Price.) Assuming we’re still re-seeding, it would have been Boston and the Flyers and the Penguins and the Rangers in the semifinals, with the latter matchup obviously happening under the current format too.

In the West … well, we’re still losing two damn good teams between the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks and the San Jose Sharks. Based on what we’ve seen, it’s entirely possible the Kings and Hawks still advance, with LA taking on Anaheim and Chicago battling Minnesota, like they did in the current format.

But again, that’s if these series were played in a vacuum.

Are these matchups more equitable than the ones we ended up with? Probably.

Are they more compelling? No, considering the traditional rivalry series the new format yielded in the first round for the Rangers, Kings and Blackhawks.

So for this season, the new playoff format bettered the old.

Save for one, nagging complaint.

One Nagging Complaint

The Boston Bruins were totally boned by the NHL.

They were a 117-point team. They were eliminated by a 100-point team while a 96-point team played the Pittsburgh Penguins on the other side of the bracket.

The NHL’s slavish obsession with creating its own March Madness-style tournament – bracketed matchups without reshuffling the teams based on points – ends up doing two things that no playoff format should seek to do:

1. It doesn’t protect the highest seeds, i.e. the best teams in the tournament, by giving them the easiest path to the championship rounds. 

2. In failing to do so, it further devalues a regular season that’s already bemoaned by fans as being too long and inconsequential when over half the league makes the postseason.

 As Ryan Lambert put it on Puck Daddy in April: “I guess having the ability to fill out a bracket is a thing some sports fans (see also: Not necessarily hockey fans) like, but in no longer re-seeding after each round, and committing to this ludicrous divisional playoff format, the league all but insured that there's likely to be some bad teams still playing while good ones are told to pack their things and hit the golf course.”

Luckily for the NHL, it’s got more than a few good ones to rely on.

But yeah, fix the re-seeding issue. Because 117 points should get you something more than a regular-season conference champions banner and terrible draft position. 

Yeah, Sure, Jury’s Still Out

Look, it’s one postseason. Maybe next year we get a collection of 5-game series and sweeps between mismatched opponents that have no natural rivalries. Maybe this gonads-to-the-wall Stanley Cup Playoffs was the outlier.

The jury’s still out. The general managers will, undoubtedly, find reasons to gripe about this postseason. (Although the HRR must have been the GDP of Ghana.)

But for someone that was super skeptical abut the NHL ruining a good thing, I’m willing to consider they they’ve improved upon perfection. 

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