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Boston Bruins

By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com

As they are wont to do, the NHL messed with something that wasn’t broken when it came to their playoff structure.

The greatest victim of 2013 reconfiguration that saw Detroit and Columbus come to the East while the Jets moved to the West, the league’s playoff retooling put an added emphasis on creating divisional rivalries. As if the 2013 postseason didn’t come with six divisional meetings through 14 in-conference postseason series, and as if divisions are the only way to create rivalries.

After all, everybody knows that the Blackhawks and Canucks only hated each other because they both played in the Central despite being separated by 2,200 miles, of course. Same for the Atlantic Penguins and Southeast Capitals through the early days of the Sid vs. Alex rivalry, right?

Organic rivalries developing by chance and subsequent hatred? No thanks. I want you to dictate what is and what is not a rivalry, please. (The NHL has also consistently reeled back on divisional head-to-heads throughout the regular season, making a focus on getting out of your division an idea even they don’t want to follow when push comes to shove.)

But the problem is not that the league has essentially forced you into accepting what is and what is not a rivalry while limiting head-to-heads. That’s actually towards the bottom of the list of issues with everything.

It’s instead that this format has essentially punished those that did their job and performed well over the course of their 82-game grind of a season.

In the last three seasons, the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs has seen the conference’s second-best team play the conference’s third- or fourth-best team five times. The only time in recent memory that a true No. 2 ‘lucked out’ was when the No. 2 Wild drew the No. 5 seed Blues in the first round in 2017. The conference’s No. 2 seed has gone against the No. 3 seed in two of those five series, punishing the Penguins and Blue Jackets in 2017, and Blackhawks and Blues in 2016.

The Bruins and Maple Leafs, by the way, could very well finish the year as the East’s No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, while the No. 4 seed Capitals would draw the conference’s No. 7 seed as the Metropolitan Division winner.

Flawed doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Even to a team that hopes to knock ’em off in round two.

“I don’t think that’s an advantage to Toronto or Boston to be — what could be the top three teams in the whole league from one division — and then to have to play that team in the first round,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said earlier this season. “I don’t think that’s right and saying that you saw what [Pittsburgh] and [Washington] had to deal with for the last couple years.

“It is what it is, you can’t change it now, but I don’t think it’s the most fair in terms of why you play and the advantage you’re supposed to have come playoff time.”

A wave of the hand and a “this happens to everybody at some point” has been a popular argument against changing this format. But the numbers indicate that this is happening on a fairly consistent basis.

In the last three postseasons alone, the second round has featured a No.  1 vs. No. 2 seed five times.

That means that the conference’s second-best team, who totaled the second-most points in their conference over that 82-game season, loses their home-ice advantage after just one round. Given that that’s sorta the whole point of the regular season, that really makes almost no sense. It also means that the NHL guarantees that one of their conference’s top two teams are out before round three.

“I understand where [the NHL is] coming from from a marketing perspective, wanting to get some rivalries early on,” Stamkos said. “But from a perspective of what you’re grinding 82 games for during a season is to finish as high as you can so you can have that advantage come playoffs.”

The No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the second round has often led to a weakened counterpart within the conference, too. When the Caps and Penguins were dueling in 2016, the Atlantic bracket was being decided by the No. 6 Lightning and No. 5 Islanders. When the Stars and Blues were fighting as the No. 1 and 2 in 2016, the Pacific was between the No. 6 Sharks and No. 7 Predators. It happened to the Caps and Penguins again in 2017, as the Atlantic was a duel between the No. 5 Rangers and No. 6 Senators. In each instance, the No. 2 seed would have been better off doing a slight-tank to draw themselves ass-backwards into a wild card spot with the intentions of falling into a weaker division.

To some, though, the counter has been a “you have to beat the best to be the best.”

Yes, that’s absolutely true. But favorable matchups absolutely make a difference over the course of a four-round playoff run. The 2011 Bruins do not win the Stanley Cup if they don’t get that meeting with the Flyers in the second round.

It just feels that for some, especially those in the Atlantic today — as well as the Metropolitan and Central of yesteryear — the war of attrition is almost twice that of your competition.

And assuming the favorites hold their home-ice advantage and advance, your road to glory is by definition more difficult in one bracket against the other.

So, again, you’re completely throwing advantages you spent seven months working on right out the window under a nonsensical belief that it’s all about the “rivalries.” You want a rivalry? Position your league so that the best teams in your conference play against one another with the stakes at their highest. It will take all of five seconds for those teams to hate one another like poison.

But this format has left us without a single No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the conference finals in 10 tries since 2014. This is an absolutely undeniable problem for a league that desperately needs and wants its top teams to be battling for the sport’s greatest prize.

Now comes something we know the NHL won’t do: Fix what’s clearly broken.

Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has also been a voting member of the Boston Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association since 2013. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.