There are certain words and phrases that are synonymous with the Stanley Cup Playoffs – “sudden death,” “home ice advantage,” “Red Wings” – and the NHL had added one that it hopes will join the lexicon:
Every playoff in every sport has one at the start, but you can usually turn it into compost after the opening round when the higher seeds are shifted over to face lower seeds.
But the NHL has gone they way of March Madness – and this is no coincidence – in locking in the seeds through to the Stanley Cup Final. As inequitable as it is for the Boston Bruins to face a team with higher points than either the Rangers, Flyers or Blue Jackets (potentially) in Round 2, that’s the way it is: They’re locked into playing the winner of the Canadiens/Lightning series.
Sucks for them, but awesome for the NHL’s bottom line: The League now has a sponsored Stanley Cup Playoffs Bracket Challenge on its home page, in which you pick the series winners, the number of games and, as a tie-breaker, the total goals scored in the Stanley Cup Final, just like you pick the total score of the NCAA men’s basketball final as a tie-breaker in March Madness – which, again, is no coincidence.
As PrintYourBrackets.com notes on its site, which allows fans to (spoiler) print their own brackets: “This allows you to now be able to run a bracket pick'em pool just like the March Madness Tournament!”
We’re sure there are other factors for the playoff format change – increasing division rivalries and all of that – but it also accomplishes something rather important for the NHL and its insatiable craving for casual fans: Simplifies the postseason and makes it wagerable.
Here’s what we know to be true:
1. Hockey, in general, is confusing as [expletive] to wager on. Casual fans don’t gamble on it, and hence aren’t addicted to watching the games on which they have money riding.
2. College basketball, in general, is super easy to wager on. Casual fans who wouldn’t know UConn from Conn Smythe tune to for March Madness because they filled out a bracket online or at the office and are playing along with the tournament.
3. According to the FBI, more than $2.5 billion was illegally wagered on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in 2012 (that includes office pools) and over $12 billion was wagered worldwide on March Madness. That’s a lot of people with a financial lure to tune in for the tournament.
4. According to everyone who knows anything, wagering on the Stanley Cup Playoffs isn’t engrained behavior for the majority of sports fans.
So the notion that “bracketology” has come to the Stanley Cup Playoffs is actually exciting.
We’ve said for years that the inability of American fans to simply wager on NHL games is something that’s held the sport back from reaching those audiences; it also factors into keeping hardcore fans watching the playoffs long after their teams are eliminated.
So now it’s on us, dear fans, to begin the process of getting all those playoff fence sitters (a.k.a. basketball fans that don't know they're hockey fans) to understand that Cup Crazy = March Madness.
Get that office pool fired up, with the understanding that they’ll have to pay attention to something for the next two months when they can’t even stick with “Mad Men” for consecutive weeks. Hell, half the office is still going on bet with the “WELL A SHARK COULD PROBABLY BEAT A KING IN A FIGHT IF THEY FIGHT TOOK PLACE AT SEA” mindset.
The new playoff format has its share of obvious drawbacks.
Opening the door to simple wagering on the NHL postseason isn’t one of them.