Changes to NHL postseason have their advantages



If you're having some trouble figuring out the NHL's new playoff format, you're not alone. A few Penguins players haven't quite nailed it down, either.

"I still haven't figured it out, to be honest with you," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I understand the first round. I don't know where it goes from there."

Along with realignment of the divisions and conferences this season, the NHL introduced a new structure for the postseason. Each conference, now comprised of two divisions, still has eight teams qualify for the postseason, but the potential matchups are significantly different.

Analysts preview NHL playoffs

Analysts preview NHL playoffs

Under the new format, the first three teams in each division automatically qualified for the postseason. The final two teams to qualify did so as wild cards based on their record, regardless of division. Those two teams will face the two division winners in Round 1 of the postseason. The second- and third-place teams in each division will square off then, as well.

The second round is where it can get a bit confusing. Unlike previous seasons, there is no re-seeding for Round 2. The bracket is set, regardless of who wins in the first round.

If the Penguins defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1, they will face the New York Rangers-Philadelphia winner in the second. They could face Boston, Detroit, Montreal or Tampa Bay only in the Eastern Conference final.

"I think I just heard about it a week ago, to be honest with you," center Brandon Sutter said of the changes. "Some guys aren't too sure about it. I think I've got it down. I don't know why they changed it."

The NHL's official rationale is that the changes were made to place a greater importance on divisional rivalries. Unofficially, travel, television and the former Southeast Division were significant factors.

* Travel -- With the Western Conference stretching across three time zones, several of those teams were weary from extensive travel in the first round. While meetings between division winners and wild-card teams still can produce long-distance series such as the first-round matchup between Anaheim and Dallas, the series between the second- and third-place teams are guaranteed to be between divisional rivals. Those usually are closer, geographically.

* Television -- With the guarantee of divisional rivals meeting in the first round, NBC, the league exclusive broadcaster in the United States, is more likely to have meetings between teams from strong television markets. The Rangers and Flyers, two of the best television markets for any sport, will face each other in the first round. They have not met in a postseason series since 1997.

* The Southeast Division -- In the old 1-through-8 format, which featured three divisions in each conference, the three division winners were guaranteed the top three seeds. Many times, the third division winner had fewer points than teams seeded below it. The Southeast Division winner usually was the biggest benefactor of that wrinkle in the format. Last season's Southeast-winning Capitals finished with 57 points. The Bruins, eventual Eastern Conference champions, were seeded fourth with 62.

Players have mixed feelings on the changes.

"I liked the old one a little better," center Sidney Crosby said. "I think either way, the top eight [teams are in]. It's just set up a bit differently. I could see the thought behind divisional matchups. But [in the first round], we could possibly not be in the division. It's hard to understand a little bit."

"I kind of like it. It's more proper rivalries," left winger Jussi Jokinen said. "It'll be some of those big rivalries. ... We'll have to wait a couple of more years to see how it goes. So far, I like the idea."

"It's not something we [the NHLPA] supported, necessarily," said right winger Craig Adams, the Penguins' player representative. "It's the way it's going now. We'll see how it goes."

Seth Rorabaugh: srorabaugh@post-gazette.com Twitter: @emptynetters.


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