The NHL's move to a division-based playoff format this season from a conference setup has a lot of people confused, even those who follow the league for a living. Actually, the confusion arises in the second round as the old conference-based seeding system is no longer in effect. But we will get to that after a look at the first round.
There is no change in the number of teams that make the playoffs – eight in both the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. However, the big change is in how those playoff spots are awarded with the NHL adopting a wild-card system. The top three teams in each of the four divisions make the playoffs. Then the two teams in each conference with the next highest point totals, regardless of division, are added to bring the number of playoff teams to 16.
In the first round, the division winner with the most points plays the wild-card team with the fewest points and the division winner with the second-most points plays the wild-card team with the second-fewest points. Then the second-place finisher in each division plays the third-place team. Now for the confusing part – the second round. The best way to understand it is to ignore the wild-card teams and remember that now the playoffs move back inside the divisions.
Using Thursday's NHL standings as an example, let's assume the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, runaway leaders of the Eastern Conference's Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions, respectively, both win their first-round series against the wild-card teams. That means the Bruins would meet the winner of the series between the second-place Montreal Canadiens and third-place Tampa Bay Lightning to decide an Atlantic Division champion. The Penguins would play the winner between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers to decide the Metropolitan title.
As far as the wild-card teams are concerned, if they upset a division winner they will play for the division title of the team they beat. So if the Toronto Maple Leafs somehow grab the first wild-card spot and then knock off the Penguins in the first round, they would play for the Metropolitan Division title even though they are from the Atlantic.
Then the winners of each series will play for the conference championship, with the winners of that advancing to the Stanley Cup final. As was the case in the old format, the team with the most regular-season points has home advantage in a playoff series. As noted above, this format gets interesting when there are upsets in the first round.
It could also be argued the team making the upset will find the going easier in the second round in the new format. Once again, we will turn to the Maple Leafs and an unlikely upset of the Penguins in the first round for an example. Under the old format, assuming the Bruins, who will likely finish with the most points in the Eastern Conference, won their first-round series, the Leafs would have to play them in the second round because of the seeding system. The surviving team with the most points played the team with the fewest, and so on.
In the new format, the Leafs would slide over to the Metropolitan Division thanks to their wild-card finish. By beating the Penguins, they would play either the Rangers or Flyers, who had the fifth– and sixth-most points in the conference as of Thursday. Not a bad deal for the Leafs.
The Bruins, still using Thursday's standings as an example, could argue they suffer in the new format. Instead of playing the theoretically worst team still in the playoffs, the Bruins would have to meet either the Canadiens or Lightning, third and fourth respectively in the conference on Thursday, for the Atlantic title.
Finally, with four teams fighting for the two wild-card spots in the East, there are many variables in each team's chances. The easiest way to look at it is to figure the Eastern Conference wild-card teams will need at least 90 points to assure themselves of making the playoffs.
That means the Maple Leafs will need to win at least five of their last eight regular-season games. It also means they must beat any of the other three teams in the wild-card race in regulation time to prevent them from gaining a point with an overtime or shootout loss. For the Leafs, even though Friday's game against the Flyers was vital, it is even more important for them to beat the Detroit Red Wings in regulation on Saturday as the Wings are in the wild-card fight along with the Leafs, Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets.
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