March 21, 2019

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Opinion

NHL's absurd playoff system penalizes Jets for finishing second in league

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/4/2018 (331 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If it makes no sense to you that the Winnipeg Jets’ reward for finishing second overall in the NHL regular-season standings is that they have to play the only team in the entire league that finished higher than them in the second round of these Stanley Cup playoffs, well, you’re not the only one.

The NHL playoff format is profoundly stupid on a lot of different levels and the Jets are getting screwed more than anyone this year.

Think about it: The only tangible benefit the Jets received for putting up a club record 114 points in the regular season and finishing second behind only the Predators is that it guaranteed that they would have home-ice advantage in all four rounds of the playoffs, with one exception: a series against Nashville.

And yet here we are, with only one playoff round behind us, and already the Jets have had to surrender that advantage because of a playoff format that makes no sense to anyone other than the clowns in the NHL's head office who thought it up five years ago.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/4/2018 (331 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If it makes no sense to you that the Winnipeg Jets’ reward for finishing second overall in the NHL regular-season standings is that they have to play the only team in the entire league that finished higher than them in the second round of these Stanley Cup playoffs, well, you’re not the only one.

The NHL playoff format is profoundly stupid on a lot of different levels and the Jets are getting screwed more than anyone this year.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSThe playoff series between the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators pits the league's Top 2 teams against each other in the second round. Really?</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSThe playoff series between the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators pits the league's Top 2 teams against each other in the second round. Really?

Think about it: The only tangible benefit the Jets received for putting up a club record 114 points in the regular season and finishing second behind only the Predators is that it guaranteed that they would have home-ice advantage in all four rounds of the playoffs, with one exception: a series against Nashville.

And yet here we are, with only one playoff round behind us, and already the Jets have had to surrender that advantage because of a playoff format that makes no sense to anyone other than the clowns in the NHL's head office who thought it up five years ago.

And you, me and the rest of the province of Manitoba aren’t the ones who think it’s dumb. "The (playoff) format sucks as far as I’m concerned," Don Cherry said in a Coach’s Corner segment on Hockey Night in Canada last week.

Yeah, it does.

Of the four major professional sports leagues on this continent, the NHL is the only one that forces playoff teams to continue playing within their own division once the playoff begins. Everyone else — the NFL, the NBA and MLB — does it the same way the NHL used to do it: the teams are seeded at the conclusion of the regular season and then the playoffs begin with minor variations of first plays eighth, second plays seventh, third plays sixth, etc.

That’s the same system the NHL used from 1994-2013 before switching to the current system, in which the first-place teams in each division play the wild-card teams and the second and third place teams in each division play each other.

For the Jets, finishing second in the Central Division meant they had to play third-place Minnesota Wild in the opening round, despite the fact the Wild had the fourth-best record in the entire Western Conference. In the old playoff system, the Jets would have played the wild-card Los Angeles Kings, who were swept in the opening round by the Vegas Golden Knights.

And now, having dispensed with a pretty good Wild team in the first round, the Jets are forced to again remain within the Central for the second round and now face the Predators, only without home-ice advantage this time around.

Make no mistake, the matter of who has home-ice advantage in this upcoming Jets-Predators series is no small matter.

Winnipeg had the best home record in the NHL during the regular season and you’ve probably noticed that Winnipeg’s home-ice advantage has become even more pronounced since the playoffs began and this city became a sea of white.

The Jets were 3-0 and gave up the grand total of just three goals at home in the opening round against Minnesota and Winnipeg would have dearly loved to have had that same home-ice advantage again in the next round.

Instead, the first two games this week against the Predators, as well as Game 5 and Game 7, if necessary, will be in Nashville, where the Preds were beaten just nine times in regulation this season.

How is any of this fair? It’s not — and no one is really even pretending otherwise.

Instead, the NHL has responded to criticisms of inequities like this in the current playoff system — there are other examples, just ask the Toronto Maple Leafs — by doubling down on the league’s contention that it fosters divisional rivalries, which in turn makes for better hockey all year long.

"We’re not looking at making any changes," league commissioner Gary Bettman told Sportsnet earlier this month. "Every game matters during our regular season, based on the format and structure we have, and there’s no reason to be contemplating any changes at all."

All of which sounds good, but only if you live in opposite-land. Or New York City.

The fact is the current system renders a lot of regular-season games inconsequential, precisely because it provides so little reward to teams such as the Jets that finish with the very best records.

In some ways, all of this will be scarily familiar to hockey fans in this town. Jets 1.0, of course, was cursed to have played in the same Smythe Division as the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, at a time the NHL used a playoff system similar to the current one that forced teams to play their way out of their division, come playoff time.

That worked out badly, as any Winnipegger can tell you: the only two times the Jets won their opening-round playoff series, they got blown out by the Oilers in the next round. We’ve spent much of the past three decades wondering how things might have worked out differently had Winnipeg had played in any division other than the one housing one of the greatest hockey teams of all time?

And now, all these years later, we’ve finally got another legitimate playoff contender, only it’s another league powerhouse that is being thrown at the Jets in the second round in the form of a Predators team that was the Stanley Cup runner-up last year and the best team in the NHL this season.

Now, maybe this is, in some ways, a good thing. You had to figure the path to the Stanley Cup final was always going to go through Nashville at some point, and you can make a case that now might just be as good a time as any.

The Jets are playing their very best hockey right now, having won 15 of their last 17 games, including 11 in a row at home, while the Predators come into this series having looked very mortal against a Colorado Avalanche team that took them to six games and beat them in Nashville.

If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. And there’s a case to be made that the best right now might actually be the Jets, not Nashville.

And if the Jets can get past the Predators, well, the regular-season standings — and a return to home-ice advantage for the Jets in the final two rounds — would suggest Winnipeg will have put the biggest obstacle between them and a Stanley Cup in the rear-view mirror.

It’s a dumb playoff system that stacks the two best teams in the league up against each before the playoffs have barely begun.

And yet here we are, with a chance to finally banish the ghosts of Oilers past and to secure a downhill run at a Stanley Cup.

Buckle up. The playoff format sucks, but this series won't.

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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