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BOSTON (CBS) – There’s absolutely nothing left to write about the Boston Bruins.
After they’re 2-1 overtime win in Phoenix Wednesday night, the Bruins are back on top in the Eastern Conference, they’ve won seven in a row and both their goaltenders – Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas – are playing like they might split the Vezina Trophy vote.
If there is such a thing as a near-perfect team, the Bruins, right now, are it.
But if you watched the Bruins’ victory in the desert, like me you might’ve thought a little bit about how the Bruins-Coyotes game relates to the NHL overall. In particular, I was thinking about the proposed NHL realignment that would take effect next season once the NHLPA agrees with the four-conference format the Board of Governors approved earlier this season.
At first, I was intrigued and supportive of the new realignment plan when it was announced. As I’ve thought more about it, however, it stinks.
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Take for instance Wednesday night’s game. An overtime game typically brings a dose of excitement regardless of the combatants. But for 60 minutes, this non-conference tilt looked like both teams wished they were back on Christmas break.
Sure, Adam McQuaid turned Raffi Torres’ head into chopped meat and we saw some fancy stickwork from Coyotes forward Ray Whitney, but for the most part the contest was more like an exercise in pursuit of one point in the standings. With no conference standings to worry about in an East-West showdown like this, that’s usually the goal – “let’s go get a point, boys.”
You know you’ve seen it around the league, whether the Bruins are playing or you’re fiddling around with your NHL Center Ice. The inter-conference games, of which each team plays 18, are a chance to play the back-up goalie, an opportunity for teams to practice their neutral-zone trap and generally play with little emotion or venom, which are the ingredients that best make hockey the game we love. Sure, the Bruins and Dallas have staged some epic bloodbaths, and might do so again Saturday night in Big D, but those games are the rare exception.
Now this all ties back into the realignment because under the new plan, instead of 18 non-conference games, teams will play 46. That’s right, instead of teams playing 22 percent of their schedule against teams they’re not battling for a playoff berth, teams will now play 56 games like the one the Bruins played in Phoenix Wednesday.
Those Bruins-Flyers, Bruins-Rangers and Bruins-Penguins tilts might still carry the same venom they have for the past 30 years. However, there will be a little bit of a drop-off when they only occur twice a season and don’t have a playoff spot at stake. Plus, those exhilarating Bruins-Flyers playoff series of the last two springs will be relegated to just a minute possibility down the line in the league semifinals or finals. That’s a shame. The league that two years ago was jamming the Flyers-Bruins rivalry down our throats in advance of the Winter Classic now sees fit to make those two franchises part-time dance partners who will square off as often with one another as they will with Winnipeg, Edmonton and Anaheim.
The rivalries within the new “conference” – which will feature the Bruins with Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay – might sizzle in the postseason, when the same teams are going to tangle repeatedly because of the intra-conference playoff format. And that 44-percent of the schedule that’s played within the conference in the regular season might provide some drama. But for those of you not that adept at math, that’s less than half the NHL schedule.
We all know why the league, and those with a financial stake in the game, love this new format. The opportunity for teams in non-traditional markets will be guaranteed at least one night a season like Wednesday, when the reports out of Phoenix had the Jobing.com Arena filled beyond capacity for the first time in its existence because the defending Stanley Cup champions were in town. The biggest stars in the NHL, assuming they’re not concussed, will definitely visit Florida, Carolina, Nashville and Phoenix once a year – meaning a big box office for teams playing where hockey is an afterthought beyond auto racing and Larry The Cable Guy.
There’s no telling what will happen to the gate in Philly, Boston, Detroit or Chicago if any of those perennial league powers has a down year. At least in a disappointing season the chance to knock off a long-time rival still puts people in the seats and provides some excitement. With those games fewer and far between, good luck to the ticket sellers in those cities to sell those guaranteed visits to their city by teams they have no history with.
You have to give credit to the NHL for the audacity to shake things up when it feels it needs the jostle. The motives behind that jostling, however, have to cause some concern for those who love the sport the way it is and are willing to trade a guaranteed visit from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for the inter-division hatred that’s built up in both conferences over the past couple decades.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com. He operatesTheBruinsBlog.net and also contributes coverage to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on twitter @TheBruinsBlog.