Inside the NHL
We’re well into the second stage of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, though it might take a while to get over what happened in the opening round.
In unprecedented fashion, three of the top four regular-season finishers were bounced – including the Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning getting swept – while only the No. 3 overall Boston Bruins survived, though they needed the full seven games to defeat Toronto. Meanwhile, four of the bottom five playoff entrants advanced and only a monumental collapse by the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7 against San Jose kept those lowest-point-total teams from going 5 for 5 in their opening series.
Speaking of the Knights, their third-period meltdown and overtime defeat in a series they’d led 3-1 means assistant general manager Kelly McCrimmon can hit the market as a GM candidate if permitted. Expect the NHL Seattle group and the Edmonton Oilers to go after him hard.
Meanwhile, for the rest of the hockey universe, the epic Game 7 folderoo by Vegas – surrendering four power-play goals in four minutes midway through the third period to erase its 3-0 lead – continued an unbelievable first round, the most watched on NBC in seven years.
Never mind that two conference winners, Tampa Bay and Calgary, failed to advance for the first time ever. The really astonishing part was those two squads – with 112 combined regular-season victories – managing just one victory in nine opening-round games.
All four wild-card teams advanced and every divison winner got eliminated for the first time ever, including the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals blowing a 2-0 series advantage and 3-1 lead in Game 7 on home ice before losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in double-overtime. It was the fourth time in nine years a Cup winner was subsequently ousted in Round 1, underscoring the parity that’s overtaken the league in the salary cap era.
But is that parity a good thing?
Players question having to endure a six-month regular season just to toss everything out the window come playoff time.
A recent Associated Press/Canadian Press survey of NHL Players Association representatives from all 31 teams found 48 percent favored changing the format. More than half favored seeding teams 1-through-8 in each conference as was the case from 1994-2013.
Currently, each division’s top three teams are bracketed together with a wild card entry and no reseeding by round — forcing top teams to sometimes play each other early on. But that was done largely to ease travel schedules. Back when the league had 1-through-16 playoff seeding in 1981 and 1982, it wasn’t unusual to cross the continent for opening-round matches. If you think players are complaining now, imagine that scenario.
Another suggestion is a mini “play-in” round for wild-card teams akin to Major League Baseball so top seeds enjoy additional rest. But frankly, when you look at the season-ending dogfight by the Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Montreal Canadiens for the final Nos. 7 and 8 playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, I’m not sure having the No. 10 team play No. 7 and No. 9 play No. 8 for two wild-card entries would have changed the opening-round outcomes much this year.
Former NHL player Dave Tippett certainly doesn’t think so. The NHL Seattle senior adviser had multiple playoff runs with the Hurricanes franchise back when it was the Hartford Whalers and said parity makes the regular season more meaningful.
“You don’t have teams that are waddling to the finish line,’’ Tippett said. “You have so many teams that are fighting for playoff spots and those are the teams that did well. The teams that cruised into the playoffs didn’t do so well.’’
Tippett specifically referenced that Eastern wild-card race, where Columbus went 9-3-1 down the stretch and Carolina went 9-4-0 to hold off Montreal at 8-4-1 and clinch playoff spots the final weekend.
In the West, the Colorado Avalanche finished 8-1-2 to clinch the final wild-card spot before upending No. 2 overall Calgary in five games. Likewise, the Dallas Stars went on a 12-5-2 tear the final month for the other wild card and knocked off Nashville in six.
So, peaking at the right time has advantages, as we’ve seen in other sports with wild-card World Series and Super Bowl winners the past decade.
But hockey was upset-prone even before NHL salary cap parity, given it combines the physical variables of the NFL with even greater longevity of playoffs than MLB. And adding an NHL “play-in” round would only allow wild-card teams to further peak while higher seeds grow stale on the sidelines.
Tippett knows both sides of that equation, having twice played in Game 7 quarterfinal overtimes: losing to favored Montreal while with Hartford in 1986 and being upset by the New York Islanders while with a Presidents’ Trophy-winning Pittsburgh squad in 1993 that had won the two prior Cup championships.
“What it comes down to is, you have seven games in each series to figure out how to beat your opponent,’’ Tippett said. “And some teams are just better at doing that.’’
Still, while upsets happened in the 1990s, the difference now is we’re seeing them loom in just about every series.
Local hockey fixture Jamie Huscroft, who went to the NHL playoffs twice with Boston in 1994 and 1995, said that’s because today’s parity far exceeds the so-called “clutch and grab” era in which he played. Huscroft saw a greater talent disparity back then after a slew of expansion teams were added and views today’s product as faster paced, higher skilled and having “greater credibility” because of overall competitive balance. And that’s carried over to the playoffs.
“I just love it,” he said. “It’s anybody’s game and it really wasn’t like that back when I played. Underdogs were definitely underdogs with really not much of a chance of making it on.”
Watching on a big-screen television at the NHL Seattle preview center last week as his old Bruins team was beating Toronto in Game 7, Huscroft said playoffs have always differed from the regular season. But now, he added, with teams more evenly matched and capable of upsets, those differences get noticed more.
“It’s still fast,” he said. “But in the playoffs, it’s tough now. Guys are blocking shots and taking a beating out there. And you physically and mentally can’t do that for 82 games. You can’t sustain that kind of beating. And that’s why, when the playoffs come around, you try to find that extra level. You do things that you ordinarily wouldn’t do.”
And now more than ever, produce extraordinary results.