NHL playoffs: The case for a shorter first round; plus a Sharks bite

Friday May 31st, 2013

Butch Goring and Don Maloney The good old days: The Rangers-Islanders best-of-five first round series in 1984 was epic. (Getty images)

By Sarah Kwak

We’ve reached the midpoint of the NHL playoffs, and maybe it’s the heat, with the temperatures in the upper 70s and 80s outside each of the arenas in the four cities remaining in the playoffs, or the two empty days before the conference finals start Saturday, but it’s got me thinking that maybe the NHL should think about tightening up the postseason. And maybe -- just maybe -- consider making the first round a best-of-five series.

Hear me out.

Of course, this year brought extenuating circumstances with the shortened schedule and the late start to the season, which necessitated a late finish. But still, one could argue a quicker first round would ensure better hockey at the end. Fresher players, fewer injuries, etc. I agree, of course, the first round is absolutely the best, with multiple games every night and the intensity of playoff hockey at its height. But a best-of-five first round would only magnify the intensity. Here's a great example from the Islanders-Rangers rivalry during the days (1980-86) when the league used that format to open the postseason.

If we'd started with a best-of-five this year, would Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury have ever made it to Game 4? With more on the line early, coaches would probably reach for the panic button much sooner. Game 1 would mean so much more. Every game of that first round would feel like a must-win. Moreover, a best-of-five first round would also help build drama as the postseason goes along. The second and third rounds can often feel like a lull, like an extended prelude to the main event. But a relatively quick first round would in turn make the second round more substantial, more meaningful, and keep the playoffs from feeling stagnant, especially early on.

So with the league re-aligning next season, and most of the first-round series to be intradivisional affairs, it would make a lot of sense to move to a best-of-five opener like the league had from 1980 to 1986. Teams will already be well-prepared for their opponents, having played each other up to five times that season. You’d say goodbye to the “feeling-out period,” see the excitement of Game 7s sooner, and shave as much as a week off the postseason. It would make the Cup Final less a war of attrition and more of a championship matchup.

I’ve said my piece. I’m sure none of you will agree.

The Sharks bite

Another year, another unrealized Stanley Cup quest in San Jose. And yet, I am convinced the NHL’s perennial playoff also-rans will win it all one of these days. The only thing is, if not next season, I wonder very much when. The Sharks' window is closing, and by the summer of 2014, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle will all face unrestricted free agency. Logan Couture, who is seen as the team’s future backbone, will be an RFA. So what’s it going to take to bring a Cup to San Jose next season? The Sharks were abysmal on five-on-five scoring this season. They ranked 28th in even-strength goals, in front of only Florida and New Jersey, two of the most anemic offenses in the league. It’s an area in which the team has steadily declined over the last four seasons. Perhaps it’s the personnel changes -- losing snipers like Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi or adding defense-minded Larry Robinson to the coaching staff -- but general manager Doug Wilson will almost certainly have to address the problem in the offseason. Five-on-five scoring has a lot to do with grinding, cycling, working the hard areas and being able to convert. Expect San Jose to look for some grit with finish, like what Ryane Clowe brought when he was scoring for the Sharks.

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