NHL Fans Struggle to Understand New Playoff System

The National Hockey League is gearing up for the postseason once again as the regular season dwindles to the final stretch. But this year, fans are trying to figure out the new playoff system implemented by Commissioner Gary Bettman for the 2013-2014 season.

“It is weird, I do not like it at all,” said Ramapo senior Joseph Reale, an avid New York Rangers Fan. “It definitely complicates things more than it really needs to.”

Reale understands the desire to spice things up when it comes to formats in sports, but says the new system is “counterintuitive” in the way it is set up.

The format relies heavily on the new alignment of divisions in the league. There are just four divisions now, with the Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions in the Eastern Conference and the Pacific and Central in the Western Conference. The best team in each division will be given either a one or two seed in the conference depending on their record.

As of now, this would be the Boston Bruins of the Atlantic Division and Pittsburgh Penguins of the Metropolitan for the Eastern Conference.

That is simple enough, but now it gets tricky. The next four teams to advance to the playoffs are the next top two teams in each division. For example, the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers of the Metropolitan will be the two teams to advance as well as The Montreal Canadians and Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic. The NHL hopes to capitalize on existing and budding divisional rivalries by forcing teams in the same division to meet in the first round.

“I find it to be so stupid,” says Ramapo senior Matthew Hessel. “I understand that they want to force rivalries to make it more exciting, but I find it to be even more exciting when they face each other to get to the Stanley Cup.”

The last two teams to round out the final eight per conference are the two next best teams regardless of division. These wildcard teams will be facing the top two teams of the conference. To put it into perspective, if the season ended today, the Boston Bruins, who would be the one seed with the highest points total of 110, would face the Columbus Blue Jackets, who squeak into the playoffs as the last seed in the conference. 

From there, the rest of the playoff matchups are purely based on seeding, with the highest remaining ranked team in the conference playing the lowest, and so on. The interesting piece to the new setup, which was possibly the main motivation for the change, is the forced matchup of divisional opponents in a postseason environment. It seems as though this will be the case this year, as one of the biggest rivalries in the sport, the New York Rangers versus Philadelphia Flyers, will more than likely be a first round matchup.

The West Coast will also get to potentially see a fun rivalry happen in the first round with two California teams, the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings, in position to face off as well. NHL rivalries always draw more fan attention, especially in the postseason. The unforgettable series in the conference finals between the Rangers and Devils in 2012 drew over 1 million viewers per game according to NBC representatives, breaking records for the New York market.

If the NHL can have strong rivalry matchups in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Bettman could have revolutionized a new playoff format that can be duplicated by other professional sports.