If the league standings hold through the final three weeks of the regular season, the NHL could very well have two of the three top teams (points-wise) in the Eastern Conference out golfing by the first week of May.
Rather than opt for the traditional, conference-based format (No. 1 seed vs. No. 8 seed, No. 2 seed vs. No. 7 seed, etc.), the league has rolled out a division-focused system with wild cards added since 2014 — with the top three teams in each division making up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots are filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season record and regardless of division.
What causes the headaches are when two or three of the best teams in the conference — or even the entire league — are sandwiched in the same division.
It’s left the NHL with egg on its face ever since this new format was adopted, with the Penguins and Capitals meeting in lesser rounds on a nearly annual basis, including the 2016-17 season in which both clubs had the two best records in the league.
Last season, the two top point-getters in the NHL in Nashville (117 points) and Winnipeg (114 points) met in just the second round of the postseason, while a 112-point Bruins team was trounced by a 113-point Lighting club in the same round — just a couple of weeks after Boston had to slug its way through a seven-game series with the third-place Maple Leafs.
As Rust Cohle once said — Time is a flat circle — and the league’s broken playoff format is once again set to chip away some of the most skilled and entertaining teams in the NHL before the conference finals can even get underway. And unsurprisingly, it’s a top-heavy Atlantic Division that’s set to take most of the flak.