By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) — This might work after all.
When the NHL announced its realignment plan nearly a year ago, Columbus Blue Jackets president John Davidson was quoted on NHL.com as saying:
“We tend to use common sense around here and this seems to make a lot of common sense.”
Geographically, a lot of the NHL’s realignment made sense, but when it came to the new playoff format, not only did it not appear make common sense, it hardly made any sense at all.
If you’ve had to read about the new format four or five times, you’re excused. I’ve read it over at least that many times. Each time I go over it, I understand it. Then the next day I wake up and forget everything.
So here’s a quick refresher:
The top three teams from each division make the playoffs, plus two wild cards in each conference. The division winners play the wild cards in the first round (most points plays least points regardless of division) while the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in each division play each other no matter what.
There will be no re-seeding and the playoff bracket will be set up by division, with the possibility of a wild card team “crossing over” because of the standings. Thus, unless a crossed-over wild card team beats a division winner in the first round, the second round will play out as de facto division championship series.
Make sense? No? Well, that’s about as simple as it can be explained.
But once your headache wears off, you’ll realize that the new format has resulted in more meaningful and intense division races. Winning your division means you face one of the two wild card teams while the second and third place teams have to play each other regardless of where they finish within the conference. Winning your division also means securing home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Under the old format, the Blackhawks would currently be the No. 3 seed in the West, facing the sixth-seeded Los Angeles Kings, who currently have 78 points. Under the new format, they are just considered the No. 2 seed in the Central and would play the third-place Colorado Avalanche, who only trail the Hawks by a point and have nine more points than the Kings.
So why should the Blackhawks have to face a better team in the first round because of this new format? It’s a fair question and one fans will surely complain about, especially if they fall behind the Avs in the standings and lose home-ice advantage when they otherwise would have it in the first round under the old format as long as they finished as the 4-seed.
But, meanwhile, two clear-cut divisional races have developed for the Hawks: A race with the Blues and Avalanche for the division title and a second race with the Avalanche for home-ice in the first-round.
True, under the old format, the Blackhawks would still be in a race with the Avs and San Jose Sharks for home-ice in the first round, but there’s something to be said for intensifying the divisional races and creating more compelling playoff matchups.
At the time of publishing, these would be the first-round matchups in the four first round series played between each divisions’ second and third place finishers: Montreal-Toronto, Philadelphia-Rangers, Chicago-Colorado and San Jose-Los Angeles.
All four are compelling matchups between divisional opponents that have been battling each other tight all season.
For the Blackhawks, they are looking at a scenario where they could play the Avalanche in the first round and then the rival Blues in what would essentially be a Central Division championship series. Get past the Blues and they could decide the West against the conference-leading Ducks.
As a result, the Blackhawks won’t be able to sleep-walk through a first round series and wait until Game 5 of the second-round to flip a switch. Sure, that makes it harder on the players, but the fans win because of the compelling matchups.
Meanwhile, the divisional battles in the regular season have intensified. The Avalanche and Blackhawks may not have been huge rivals a year ago, but Tuesday night’s four point swing with the Avs’ win in Chicago sure seemed like a big deal. And next week’s game in Colorado will loom even larger, as will the two remaining games against the Blues.
So are these races having an impact on how hard the players bring it every night?
“Yeah, I think so,” Blackhawks winger Andrew Shaw said Thursday night. “There’s some great teams in the Western Conference. Positioning is huge. You want that home-ice advantage in the playoffs and we got to go out there and get it.”
Shaw’s two goals Thursday helped the Blackhawks beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 6-1 at the United Center, allowing the Hawks to maintain their one point lead on the Avalanche and pull within two points of the Blues.
The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, are in the thick of the Eastern Conference’s Wild Card race and fell out of the last playoff spot after the Detroit Red Wings earned a point in a overtime loss to the Avalanche.
Sure, there’s no doubt the new format is confusing, but there also seems to be meaningful playoff races everywhere you look in the NHL.
And if the format delivers the type of playoff matchups it appears to promise, this thing might make sense after all.
Let’s just not call it common sense.
Adam Hoge is a senior writer for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.