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Rethinking the postseason

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The Colorado Avalanche closed last season with a 15-2-2 surge, earning 32 of a possible 38 points to finish the season with a 44-31-7 record. And they missed the Stanley Cup playoffs.

This season, the Washington Capitals have gone 33-17-7 since Bruce Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon behind the bench. That translates to a 105-point pace if maintained from start to finish, certainly playoff-worthy.

But unless the Caps get some help over the final 10 days of the regular season, they won't qualify for the postseason. They trail Boston, Carolina and Philadelphia by two points and have one fewer game remaining than all three teams. Washington doesn't face the Bruins or Flyers again.

From 1979 to 1991, when there were 21 teams in the league, 16 qualified for the postseason. Since Columbus and Minnesota came aboard in 2000, the NHL has fattened to 30 teams for seven seasons, but still 16 qualify for the playoffs.

In other words, while the league has expanded by 43 percent, the playoff field has remained the same. And laugh all you want about how for 12 seasons everyone played 80 games to eliminate only five teams, but the new format might be just as humorous at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Shouldn't a Toronto Maple Leafs team that goes 41-33-8 in 2005-06 be in the playoffs? Or the Atlanta Thrashers, who that season posted an identical record yet had to wait another year before qualifying for the field of 16 for the first time?

It wasn't restricted to the Eastern Conference two years ago either. Out west, Vancouver (42-32-8) and Los Angeles (42-35-5) had 92 and 89 points, respectively, and failed to qualify.

Getting back to this season – and here's the clincher – does the NHL really want to exclude Alexander Ovechkin from its two-month run when interest from both the loyal and casual fan is at its highest?

We offer this as merely a question. Should the NHL consider expanding its playoff format to include more teams in the postseason?

It's not an idea that isn't fraught with obstacles and ramifications. It's not so simple to say, "Add teams to the playoff field and away we go." And there would be a risk of damaging what is very good about the NHL: its four rounds of best-of-seven series, which may be the best gauge of a league's ultimate winner and better than how any other sport decides its champion (although the NBA recently expanded its first round to seven-game series as well).

For argument's sake, what if the league were to allow 10 teams from each conference into the playoffs? Right off the bat the format wouldn't work because there would be five opening-round winners in each conference, and it needs to be an even number of teams moving on to form all-conference second-round matchups.

So maybe it could go something like this: Ten teams from each conference qualify for the postseason, but the six teams with the most regular-season points in each conference draw an opening-round bye. Opening-round conference matchups would pair the No. 7 vs. No. 10 and No. 8 vs. No. 9 in best-of-five "qualifying-round" series.

The two teams that advance in each conference become the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in the "first round" with matchups for best-of-seven series looking like this: Nos. 1-8, Nos. 2-7, Nos. 3-6 and Nos. 4-5. Teams are re-seeded after each round, as is the case currently, and the higher seed enjoys home ice for Games 1, 2, 5 and 7.

And here's something else to consider: When the field reaches the last four teams, re-seed them in terms of regular-season points. As a result, if the remaining top two point-getters are from the same conference, they wouldn't meet before the Stanley Cup Finals.

Last season, for example, Detroit would have played host to Ottawa, and Buffalo would have entertained Anaheim in third-round matchups. The Red Wings and Ducks, whom some believe were the best two teams, could have met in the Cup finals instead of a round earlier.

The first problem with adding a round of playoffs is finding the time to cram another 10 days into the existing schedule. The players' association would have to agree to such a move. Players are paid during the 180 days it takes to play 82 regular-season games, not during the postseason.

And the players already are pushing for an 84-game regular season to accommodate a format that allows a visit to every other city at least once a season. But the players will agree only if exhibitions are capped at a maximum of five games. That format could come to fruition as soon as the year after next.

Also, ice conditions become a concern because the end of the postseason now stretches into the hot-weather month of June. If the preseason is shortened, something has to give. The regular-season schedule would have to be reduced to 78 to 80 games per team, which might improve the overall product but won't set well with the owners.

Maybe, too, teams that finish in the top six of each conference wouldn't like the idea of being idle for 10 to 12 days as they wait for the preliminary rounds to finish. Or maybe the format would help injured players return.

On the positive side, more teams would remain in the race later in the season. Ultimately, four more teams that could be playing well at the end of the season get in. Fan interest is higher. The playoffs, no doubt the best part of any NHL season, are longer and involved more markets.

Oh, and one more thing. Alexander Ovechkin isn't on the first tee come April 7.