By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Montreal Canadiens don’t typically engender sympathy from anywhere outside of the province of Quebec. Taking that a step further, they rarely receive words of support from the state of Massachusetts.
Yet, what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong. And the Canadiens are about to get the short end of the stick in the NHL’s wonky playoff system — however, not as much as the Penguins and Blue Jackets.
Allow me to explain. But before we get there, let’s take it back about three-and-a-half years, when the NHL instituted a new playoff system because … the NHL likes to tinker with things that don’t necessarily need tinkering. The realignment of divisions was “geographically appropriate,” which was fine in and of itself. But the league took that a step further and instituted a new playoff format.
The top three teams in each of the four divisions made the playoffs. The best two remaining teams in each conference got wild-card spots. This became slightly confusing for fans to follow, compared to the previously simple list of the eight top teams in each conference.
But now, everybody’s mostly figured it out. And they can see that it’s going to do the Habs dirty. And the Penguins and Blue Jackets are going to get it much worse.
This year in the Eastern Conference, the Metropolitan Division established itself as the far superior division. The top three teams and four of the top five teams in the Eastern Conference all reside in the Metro, where those four teams have already reached or eclipsed the 100-point mark. Meanwhile over in the Atlantic Division, just one team has reached the 100-point mark, and it’s likely that no other team gets there.
And it’s in that inferior conference that Montreal has been able to rise to the top. With 101 points, they’re eight points clear of first place, set to coast right on into the playoffs … where they’re set to meet the New York Rangers … who have 100 points and are fourth in the Metro.
Elsewhere in Montreal’s division, two inferior teams — two of either Boston, Toronto or Ottawa — will have the luxury of having to face a team in the first round that is worse than the Rangers.
This makes no sense.
Having each division winner play a wild-card team made sense in that theoretically, the wild-card teams are worse than the top three teams in each division. But when one division is significantly inferior to the other, the leftover wild-card team from the superior division is going to end up in a wild-card spot. And then the second and third seeds in the inferior division get to play each other, while the top seed in that inferior division has to play a better team in the first round.
How does that make any sense?
But for as bad as it looks for Montreal in this format — and don’t get me wrong, it’s bad that either Ottawa, Toronto or Boston will get an easier first-round matchup after having a worse regular season than Montreal — the new system is really penalizing the Penguins and Blue Jackets.
That’s because under the old system, the current Eastern Conference playoff picture would look like this:
1. Washington, 112 points
2. Pittsburgh, 107 points
3. Columbus, 106 points
4. Montreal, 101 points
5. New York Rangers, 100 points
6. Toronto, 93 points
7. Ottawa, 92 points
8. Boston, 92 points
As you can see, in the old format where one plays eight and two plays seven and so on and so forth, the Canadiens would have the tough break of getting the Rangers anyway.
(EDIT: As a reader pointed out, the old system rewarded the three divisional winners by placing them in the top three seeds in the conference. Given the changes to scheduling under the 2013 realignment, it’s not worth naming imaginary winners of the Atlantic, Northeast and Southeast Divisions. I apologize for the oversight. Let it be a lesson that haste makes waste.)
But where the new system really hurts is in Pittsburgh and Columbus. Instead of the Penguins getting the Senators and the Blue Jackets getting the Leafs, the Penguins and Blue Jackets are going to get each other.
Having the second- and third-best team in the conference face off in the first round is not how the playoffs should work, plain and simple.
There should be a provision in the NHL postseason format that prevents this situation. The 107-point team should not have to play the 106-point team while the 93-point and 92-point teams get to play each other. That’s inequitable. Same goes for the 101-point team playing the 100-point team.
As for a solution for the Penguins and Blue Jackets, blowing up the system is the only thing that works. The idea the NHL had in instituting this system was to create and foster divisional rivalries. And that’s all well and good … but man, it’s tough to square the fact that either the Penguins or Blue Jackets will get bounced in round one, while at least one of the Leafs-Senators-Bruins trio is guaranteed to move on to round two.
It is not wrong or bad or unfair to rank playoff teams based on points. Does a city like Columbus really benefit from the added appeal of a division rivalry if it gets ousted in the first round? Wouldn’t winning a playoff series over Toronto help to accomplish more?
(Or, how about an admittedly terrible but undeniably intriguing solution? If we temporarily leave aside the Metro issues and look solely at Montreal, the NHL could allow Montreal to choose its first-round opponent between the Senators and the Rangers. Can you imagine if this coming Sunday night, the Canadiens got to choose their opponent? The NHL could televise it, whichever team got picked would be mortally offended, and that series would be a lock to be filled with bad blood and emotion. That’d be something. Again, terrible idea. But at least I’m thinking!)
The worst part of this is that it’s not uncommon. It happened last year. Pittsburgh (104 points) had to play the Rangers (101 points) in the first round, while Tampa Bay (97 points) got to play Detroit (93 points). Additionally, Florida (103 points) as the Atlantic division winner had to play the wild-card Islanders (100 points), when the two lower playoff teams in the Atlantic had 97 and 93 points.
Why bother winning the division if you’re going to get a tougher first-round opponent?
For that matter, why bother trying to make the third seed in your division if it’s more advantageous to remain a wild card, as it is for the Rangers this year?
These aren’t minor gaps, either. If these teams were all within four or five points of each other, then the first-round pairings would at least seem slightly less unfair. But the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in the Atlantic are just going to be so much lower than all three Metro teams and the first wild card that it really does create a problem.
Obviously, it’s playoff hockey, and the best teams will have to prove they’re the best teams, no matter the opponent. That is understood. But three out of eight Eastern Conference playoff teams aren’t getting a fair shake from the jump this spring. The NHL should be inspired to fix that.
In Boston, where the Bruins are on the verge of just making the postseason for the first time in too long, this may not seem like a problem — especially considering the Canadiens are among the three Eastern Conference teams getting hosed. That’s likely to bring delight, if anything, among those in Boston in tune with the situation.
No, the situation may not inspire tears in Boston or Philadelphia or Detroit or anywhere else where the local team is unaffected. But if it’s happening to Montreal and Pittsburgh and Columbus, then all teams need to be aware it could be them next year. In designing this new playoff format, the NHL fixed what was not broken. Now, it’s as clear as ever that it’s in desperate need of being reconsidered.