Column: The NHL playoff format stinks and here’s why

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FILE – From left are file photos showing NHL hockey player Derick Brassard with the Pittsburgh Penguins, on Jan. 28, 2019, with the Colorado Avalanche on March 9, 2019 and with the Florida Panthers on Feb. 5, 2019. Excuse Derick Brassard for having a little difficulty finding his bearings after the veteran center took an unorthodox cross-country route in reaching the NHL playoffs. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

We are in the midst of one of the best stretches of entertainment of the year. Baseball is getting into full swing (no pun intended), the Masters are here, the NHL and NBA playoffs are getting underway, Game of Thrones starts this Sunday and Avengers: Endgame is mere weeks away.

What could possibly be bringing me down? The NHL and their caveman-like playoff format.

The Boston Bruins finished the regular season with 49 wins and 107 points. Their total point total is second in the conference behind just the Tampa Bay Lightning who ran away with the President’s Trophy leading the league with 128 points. If the Bruins were to play in the Western Conference, they would be tied for the one-seed with the Calgary Flames.

Instead, they have the two-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. And in return? They’ll be squaring off against the five-seed Toronto Maple Leafs. Not the seven-seed Carolina Hurricanes, as would be suspected in an eight-team conference tournament. One would assume the format would go as following: One vs. eight, two vs. seven, three vs. six and four vs. five. Well, that’s not the case in the National Hockey League.

Unlike the NBA, who largely has it right in my opinion, the NHL’s playoffs are largely division-based with wild card teams. The top three teams in each division make the playoffs and, the remaining four spots are filled by the next two highest-place teams in each conference. In the first round, the division winner with the best record will play the worse wild card team. The better wild card team will play the other division winner. The teams finishing second and third in each division will play each other in the first round.

Was that confusing? Possibly not. But it’s more confusing than it needs to be. The NBA disregards divisions entirely, with the best teams — one through eight — matching up in the first round based solely on season performance, not based on whatever division they’re placed in.

The league retooled the playoffs in 2013 for a pretty simple, but stupid, reason. They wanted to place an added emphasis on divisional rivalries. Funny enough, the playoffs, just before the retooling had six divisional meetings in the 14 in-conference matchups. These were the early days of Alex Ovechkin with the Capitals and Sydney Crosby with the Penguins. Rivalries can’t be pushed by specific formats. They need to breed out of chance events and subsequent hate for those events. Hating the Maple Leafs just cause we both want the two seed in the Atlantic Division doesn’t do it for me, nor should it do it for anyone.

The format has more or less punished teams for doing what they’re supposed to do: Win as many games as you can. The Bruins won more games than the other division leader, and should be rewarded with a better matchup.

You know the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Well someone ought to tell the NHL that.


Connor Donahue is the digital editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at connor.f.donahue@uconn.edu. He tweets at @conn_donahue.

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