If you’re at work and you run across someone humming the to tune of It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year in April, there’s a pretty good chance you’re dealing with a hockey fan. If it happens to be this April, it may very well be accompanied by a happy dance.
The first round of the Stanley Cup tournament is easily the most compelling, chaotic and anxiety-inducing spectacle in all of professional sports. But this spring, things have been taken to a sublime level with shocking upsets, boiling rivalries and three Game 7s in the space of two nights. There’s even been some good old-fashioned trash talk, with Vegas coach Gerard Gallant calling San Jose counterpart Peter DeBoer “a clown” for claiming Gallant is chirping the Sharks players.
More than any other, this year represents everything the NHL could have ever wanted when it revamped its playoff system to focus on divisional rivalries five years ago. It boggles the mind how anyone with one ounce of objectivity could look at what has transpired in the first round of the playoffs this spring and have a complaint with the NHL’s post-season format. So rather than give in to pressure to change, here’s hoping those who control the levers of power leave well enough alone and allow us to enjoy the mayhem. In terms of entertainment value, chances are the playoffs are going to get worse, not better, as we move along the long, winding road to the Stanley Cup final. This is almost certainly as good as it’s going to get.
Have their been shocking upsets? Heck, yeah. This is the first time the top seeds in both the Eastern and Western Conferences have been ousted. And what’s even more shocking, they won one game between them. But if every team that was statistically favored to win won its series, what would be the point of having a playoff in the first place? There are those who believe this year proves the regular season is meaningless, or at least is the subject of far too much importance. Tell that to the 15 teams, which represents almost half the league, that are looking in from the outside wishing it had won a couple more games and snuck into that final spot for a chance to play giant killer.
There are also those who believe the league should return to the one-versus-eight conference seeding format to give the favorites a better chance of winning their series and moving on to the second round. Well, guess what? Had the league done that based on this year’s regular season, the Tampa Bay Lightning still would have played the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. And all four series would have been exactly the same in the Western Conference. Every. Single. One.
And let’s not even start with this nonsense about play-in games for teams that just miss the playoffs here. Last time anyone checked, this was not the annual Mimico Kiwanis House League Tournament. This is the NHL. Too bad if some players, coaches and GMs don’t like it and want it changed. The league is for the enjoyment of those who buy tickets, watch games on televisions and spend hundreds of dollars on merchandise. It’s nice to actually throw them a bone once in a while.
Are you tired of seeing the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs go seven games in the first round? Well, if you’ve fatigued from watching the Maple Leafs lose those games, well, your frustration is duly noted. But all the rest of us love it. And while you’re at it, we’ll happily take all the Vegas Golden Knights-San Jose Sharks you want to give us. It’s incredible how the Golden Knights have only been in the NHL for two seasons and already an entire fan base hates them. Funny, don’t recall anyone having a passionate hate-on for the California Golden Seals, Cleveland Barons or the Kansas City Scouts (with the possible exception of their own fans).
This is something that has been made crystal clear, but it bears repeating. This is exactly what the league had in mind when it devised this system. Sure, you get odd situations where one of the third- and seventh-best teams in the regular season are out of the playoffs in the first round, but the fact is you are guaranteed to get that matchup this way, and we’re getting it when the players are relatively fresh and unblemished.
Instead of grousing about the playoff format, here’s an idea: Lean back in the barcalounger and enjoy the three Game 7s you’re about to see. There are so many things the NHL does wrong. Let’s revel in one of the things it does right.
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