The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

As short season winds to a close, NHL's quirky playoff system once again in spotlight

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The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Atlantic Division title, and the top spot in the East appears a formality.

The Chicago Blackhawks have the Central Division championship and the No. 1 seed in the West all within reach.

Holding the top seeds entering the playoffs are no guarantee they'll meet in the Stanley Cup finals, of course. But home ice is usually a nice advantage during a rugged post-season. The top four teams in each conference deserve the appropriate reward for their consistency over a long — or lockout-shortened — season.

But there's always one weird exception.

In the NHL, teams can get rewarded with home ice even with a worse record and fewer points than their opponent.

Division winners are seeded in the top three spots for the post-season ahead of teams with whopping point totals. In the East, that means Southeast leader Washington (44 points) is placed ahead of Boston (54 points) and Toronto (48 points) in the standings entering Wednesday night's action. If conference seeding was based solely on points, the playoff race would be a bit more fair. The Capitals would be in the mix with Ottawa and the New York Islanders (44 points each) for the eighth and final spot, playing down the stretch for a post-season berth, not looking toward home ice.

Should Alex Ovechkin and the surging Capitals slip, Winnipeg could pounce and take advantage of the inane rule. The Jets trail Washington by two points in the Southeast, even though they are tied in points with the New York Rangers, who are eighth in the East.

The Jets-Capitals game on April 23 could be the difference in seed No. 3 or No. 8 — or maybe no seed at all and a date with the golf course.

The NHL has this system because it wants to make division races matter, and also because of an unbalanced schedule that is on its last days with realignment on the way.

The new format goes into effect next season, and will feature two eight-team divisions in the Eastern Conference, including the Red Wings and Blue Jackets moving over from the West. The Jets will now be part of a Western Conference that's made up of two seven-team divisions.

The new format also creates changes in determining the 16-team playoff field. The top three teams in each division will qualify for the post-season. The next two teams with the best records in each conference will then earn wild-card berths.

That will make it more difficult for teams to qualify in the East, because it will have two more clubs than the West competing for eight berths.

Problems for another year. Right now, it's about getting in — any way you can.

Washington (five straight wins) and Winnipeg (two straight) understand that, and they are playing like it. After all, the label of that No. 3 seed would allow one of them to dodge a likely date with the streaking Penguins in Round 1.

Stay in third, and there's a better chance of advancing. The Capitals would play Ottawa, a No. 6 seed, based on standings through Wednesday.

But, once the playoffs start, often times that discrepancy in talent and point production filters out, regardless of seed. Last year, for instance, Florida snagged that No. 3 seed — and home ice — and still lost in the first round to No. 6 New Jersey.

"I think anyone who's competitive, you might not watch it every day, but you kind of have a good feel for it," Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik said of the race. "I think we've positioned ourselves now that we don't have to worry about trying to get every single little point to get in, which is good."

Pittsburgh clinched the Atlantic Division title by beating the free-falling Carolina Hurricanes 5-3 Tuesday. The Penguins became the first team in the NHL to claim a division crown in this shortened season.

The Blackhawks are close to wrapping up a division crown, even as Anaheim is on the brink of clinching a playoff berth. Blackhawks goalie Ray Emery knows even if the seeds aren't necessarily fair for a couple of teams, the best ones can win out in the playoffs no matter the circumstances.

"Obviously, it's nice to have home ice throughout, but I think it's more important to be playing really well going in," said Emery, who watched from afar as the Kings — playing as the final seed in the West — won the Stanley Cup last June. "You look at past playoffs, where L.A. comes in at No. 8. So, I don't think the standings are necessarily as important as playing well."

Chicago and Pittsburgh can rest up over the final two weeks before the playoffs begin April 30. They'll earn their spot as the top seeds.

But perhaps the right idea is to seed teams Nos. 1-8 based on points. Some front office personnel say there has to be a reward for winning the division, making the current system the right one.

There may not be a right answer — but it can sure make for interesting post-season hockey.

_____

AP Sports Writers Joedy McCreary and Dave Campbell contributed to this report.

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