NHL Postseason Preview

Daniel Gutstein


Clear your calendars and subscribe to NBC sports network. The NHL push for the cup is forthcoming, and the new playoff format beckons before a league divided between East and West.
Courtesy of the National Hockey League
A season that began in October, stopped for three weeks in February for the Olympics, and saw five games played in the outdoor elements is just now hitting its stride. Wild Card contenders New Jersey and Phoenix are trying to sneak in, while in Chicago and Pittsburgh, perennial Cup contenders are seeking timely health and momentum.

As part of this year’s realignment, Calgary and Detroit moved to the Eastern Conference and Winnipeg joined the West, leaving the Western Conference with two less teams than the East. Simple math reasons that Eastern teams face a tougher challenge to reach the postseason than their Western counterparts under the new alignment. But, as in many previous years, the West remains the more dominant and balanced league.

With less than a week left in the season, Boston and Pittsburgh are the only Eastern teams with 100 points. It’s Boston, Pittsburgh, maybe Montreal – and everybody else. Meanwhile, Anaheim, San Jose, St. Louis, Chicago and Colorado all reached the century mark with time to spare in the Wild West.

The new bracketed playoff alignment stresses divisional play, with the second and third finishers in each division facing each other. Because seeds are no longer reformatted after each round, the second round is also designed for division matchups.

As much as the new format seems to punish stronger divisions, such as the Central, this year’s setup will be almost identical to what they would have been under the previous format.

As of April 9, the No. 3 Blackhawks will play the No. 2 Avalanche, a matchup that seems most unfair considering both teams will finish the season with over 100 points. But where would Chicago rank under the previous format? No. 5. Their opponents: the would-be No. 4 San Jose Sharks, now only two points behind Colorado in the overall standings.

The real “unfairness” lies in the unbalanced quality of the two conferences. Of the five high caliber Western teams—St. Louis, Chicago, Colorado, Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles—one is guaranteed to be eliminated in the first round. Montreal sits comfortably as the third best Eastern team. In the West, they would only be one point ahead of sixth place San Jose.

Despite the difficulty of the Western Conference and the somewhat lopsided nature of the East, do not discount the dark-horse candidates. Even the most unheralded teams can skate to glory. The 2010 Philadelphia Flyers are a prime example. They qualified for the playoffs with a regular season finale shootout victory, yet two months later they were Eastern Conference champions.

The best teams, the ones most deserving of the Cup, focus foremost on themselves, ignoring the adversities of imbalanced scheduling and the inevitably unjust refereeing. In the push to ultimate glory, skill and perseverance lead the way. A little luck is just icing on the skates.