With three Game 7s — including one that required overtime — the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs concluded late on Wednesday with a flourish, about as successful a round as the league could have hoped for.
As a result, the early returns for the league’s new realignment plan, along with its playoff adjustments, are positive. (The realignment and playoff system were changed after the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets.) Under the old system, a top-three seed went to each of one of a conference’s division winners and teams were seeded first through eighth.
The new system is an attempt to harken back to the 1980s when teams had to win their division — we loved the names Adams, Patrick, Smythe and Norris, even if they were obscure to the uninitiated — in the first two rounds in order to reach the conference finals. Because in the new system the No. 7 and 8 teams in each conference earn playoff berths as wild cards, it’s a little more complex than the format of the ’80s. Dallas, the eighth team in the West out of the Central Division, played Anaheim, the Pacific Division team that finished as the top seed in the Western Conference. Nonetheless, the new system, in essence, has caused more traditional rivals to play each other in the first two rounds than they might have in the past.
"Yes, to this point, we are very pleased with the new playoff format, including the matchups that it has produced this year," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email. "One of the overriding objectives was to create a system that promotes rivalries, and team familiarity, particularly within the 1st and 2nd Rounds. While some of the matchups were bound to reflect ‘new’ rivalries as a result of the new Divisional alignment (e.g., Boston-Detroit and Montreal-Tampa Bay), even those will develop over time as the teams continue to face each other on a more frequent basis over a period of years.
"It’s definitely been a good start for us, and one we look forward to building from."
During its period of expansion that concluded in 2000, the NHL attempted to build rivalries through enhanced divisional and conference play at the expense of inter-conference games. In some ways, this season’s move to a schedule matrix that offers more balanced play throughout the entire league was an acknowledgement that building rivalries in the five-team, six-division format was not a huge success. Who, one might ask, was the biggest rival of the Dallas Stars, a Central time zone team playing in the Pacific Division? Or the Carolina Hurricanes, who advanced to the Cup Final twice between 2002 and 2006 but did so without having to battle through a single divisional opponent to get there?
The downside of the new playoff system is that it penalizes teams that happen to have great regular seasons but play in strong divisions. Under the old system, St. Louis, third in the West, would have faced Los Angeles (a matchup the Blues might not have won anyway) and Tampa Bay, third in the East, would have played Philadelphia, which might have given the Lightning a better chance than did Montreal.
The other negative — the one that the NHL Players’ Association voiced and that resulted in the wild-card, cross-over setup — is that the West has 14 teams to the East’s 16. But going simply by points, the East’s No. 9 team, Washington, earned 90 points and would not have qualified in the West ahead of No. 8 Dallas, which earned 91.
And the benefit is the more attractive matchups for viewers. Daly said that as "as a factual matter" the league’s ratings were up in the first round over last year’s. He said that it is "hard to pinpoint specific factors accounting for that, but I assume matchups have a lot to do with driving fan interest and ratings."
So, starting on Thursday, fans can look forward to more interesting matchups. The Rangers and Penguins have history, the highlight of which came in 1992. The Rangers finished with the NHL’s top regular-season record that season but lost in six games to Mario Lemieux’s Penguins, who went on to raise their second straight Cup.
Boston and Montreal share arguably the league’s richest and most intense rivalry and will play for the 34th time.
The Kings and Ducks represent two of the past seven Cup champions and a reprise of the successful Stadium Series game at Dodgers Stadium from earlier this season. They have never met in the postseason.
Chicago and Minnesota, now both in the Central Division, could represent a budding rivalry with the high-spending Wild of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise up against the defending Cup champions.