NHL Column: Should the Regular Season Matter More?

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Curtis McElhinney is congratulated by Justin Faulk (27), Haydn Fleury (4) and Dougie Hamilton (19) following the Hurricanes' 5-2 win over the New York Islanders in Game 3 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The game of hockey in the spring months is an entirely different sport compared to the winter season prior. While hockey is a winter game, the most exhilarating version of the craft comes to fruition when the weather heats up. The game changes to such an extent that the NHL’s regular season does not matter one bit.

In order to make the playoffs, you pretty much have to finish in the top 16 of the league. But that means that over half of teams are involved in postseason play. In baseball, only 10 teams, a third of MLB, makes it to the playoffs. And of those teams, four are guaranteed only one wild card matchup. Since anything can happen in just one game, the importance for teams to win their division is escalated. In hockey, each qualifier is given a best of seven series regardless of finish.

The NFL allows only 12 of its 32 teams into the playoffs, and provide incentive to finishing as a conference leader. The top two teams in each conference receive a first round bye.

With their playoff systems, both sports have put more of an emphasis on finishing higher in the standings during the regular season. The NBA’s system is more similar to the NHL, with sixteen teams making it to the dance. But the nature of basketball usually ensures that the best regular season teams will win in the postseason anyway. The possibilities of upsets are minimized due to the unwavering impact of the game’s biggest stars.

In hockey, once the playoffs begin, everything prior is erased. And while that may be true in every sport, the NHL maximizes this theory. The only benefit of being one of the best regular season teams is having home ice advantage, which gives teams only one additional home game. Division winners get the illusion of a luxury in playing wild card teams in the first round, but often it turns out that there is little advantage in this at all.

In this year’s playoffs, each division winner was eliminated in the first round by wild card opponents. It was upsets galore to kick off the postseason, proving that the regular season results mean absolutely nothing. All that matters is that a team gets into the tournament as one of the top 16 groups.

The unpredictability of hockey makes the standings irrelevant over a seven game series. The idea of a series of such length is somewhat to minimize the factor of luck. Yet, it still remains that chance can play a role in deciding the outcome of a series.

The real question is, are the playoffs a poor indicator of which teams are the best, or is the regular season a poor indicator of such? Playoff hockey focuses more on the physical, defensive aspects of the game. Referees call fewer penalties as well, going by the “let them play” mentality. To most, this is the best version of hockey there is.

To top it off, regular season shootouts are replaced by the perfection of unlimited sudden death overtime. With this enhancement of the game, teams that adapt well to a different style of play tend to find playoff success.

The meaningless nature of the NHL’s regular season may be viewed as a fault, but really it just heightens excitement come April. The more teams that are involved in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the better fan engagement is, as more fan bases will have direct interest in the sport for a longer period of time. Hockey’s unpredictability come playoff time is also one of its greatest strengths over other sports. People are drawn to the action because the public loves to see upsets. The Blue Jackets’ sweep of the Lightning, for instance, put the NHL in the spotlight.

It may seem unfair that Tampa Bay was bounced so quickly, especially after they tied for the best regular season record of all time. But as we remember how hockey’s playoffs are a completely different animal from the 82 game regular season, it only makes sense for each team to get an even shake.

In North America, sports success is rarely measured by regular season accolades. Fans and analysts obsess over championships, only vaguely remembering division titles. Such is evident when evaluating players’ careers as well. Even though championships are won by teams, they are often used as an attribution to a player’s ability.

Whether this sentiment is right or wrong is irrelevant, as it is reality in our sports world. The NHL’s playoff system is based on the way society evaluates success. The vast nature of possibilities in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is why fans love it so much. To apply more credit to teams based on the regular season would eliminate the beauty of the game’s uncertainty.


Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu.