Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask
Tampa Bay Lightning
Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy
Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask
Tampa Bay Lightning
Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy
Hockey players are conditioned to think that winning the Stanley Cup means going through the best teams to be the best team.
That doesn’t mean they are blind to some of the inequalities of the NHL’s current divisional playoff format. An Associated Press/Canadian Press survey of NHLPA representatives from all 31 teams shows that almost half favor changing the format – and most support going back to seeding the Eastern and Western Conferences 1 through 8, the structure that was used from 1994-2013.
This is the sixth playoffs where each division’s top three teams and a wild card are bracketed together with no reseeding by round. A year ago, Nashville and Winnipeg finished first and second in the league in points and had to meet in the second round. The same thing happened with Washington and Pittsburgh in 2017.
”It’s kind of tough the fact that a lot of good teams are going out first or second rounds,” Columbus defenseman David Savard said. ”I think maybe we need to look back at maybe 1 against 8 and play that format.”
Savard was among 15 players (48.4%) who said the divisional format should be changed. Seven (22.6%) said it should stay the same and the other nine (29%) were noncommittal. The players were surveyed March 7-April 4, before the playoff matchups for this year were fully set.
The NHL went to back to a divisional structure similar to what it used from 1982-93 in large part to create or revive rivalries. Toronto and Boston are meeting in the first round for the second consecutive year, while the Capitals and Penguins met in the playoffs three times in a row.
There is little doubt those teams dislike each other a lot more now than they did before this playoff format.
”I think it’s good for the rivalries,” said New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider, who supports the current format. ”I think it’s good for the teams seeing each other year after year. You can cry what’s fair or not fair, the two best teams meeting in the second round, but it’s going to be great hockey one way or another. I think that’s the best part about the playoffs is that it’s a two-month gladiator event where everyone just beats the crap out of each other.”
Presidents’ Trophy winner Tampa Bay losing in the first round to eighth-seeded Columbus is more of a Lightning problem than a format problem. If the Lightning had gotten past the Blue Jackets, a potential second-round series against the Bruins would have guaranteed to knock out one of the top three teams in the league before the conference finals.
Travel is the biggest concern among players when it comes to a playoff format, and it’s much more of an issue in the spread-out West. Grouping by divisions is designed to limit those issues, but the wild-card system means a team like Nashville could have to face a team from California, Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary in the first round if it lines up that way.
”The biggest issue is probably the travel for the Western Conference,” said Predators defenseman Yannick Weber, who did not indicate a preference either way for changing the format. ”If we have to go to California for each round and Eastern teams have a little bit of an easier schedule, I think that’s the only downside from it.”
The most equitable format is seeding playoff teams 1 through 16, which the NHL tried in 1981 and 1982. The potential for cross-continent travel in each round is the biggest impediment to making that leap.
The Southern Professional Hockey League has tested a ”challenge round” format where the top three seeds in each conference get to pick their first-round opponent from seeds 5-8. Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle suggested that for the NHL in a recent interview with Sportsnet in Canada.
A pick-your-opponent format would create plenty of bulletin-board material for lower-seeded teams. But in a sport where matchup advantages, injuries and momentum matter more than the results of an 82-game regular season, it could silence complaints that the current format devalues everything from October through March.
”It almost gets to a point that the regular season doesn’t really mean anything because you see those divisions, there’s such a big difference between them,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. ”If you have to cross over and now you’re facing an easier division because you’re a wild card, doesn’t seem to be fair for me. The whole regular season needs to have a bigger effect on the playoffs.”
That’s where the argument comes in that the NHL should move to a play-in system like baseball, perhaps where the Nos. 7 and 10 seeds and Nos. 8 and 9 seeds in each conference play once to see who gets in. That would theoretically give more of a boost to the top two teams in the East and West.
Colorado’s Ian Cole, who played twice in the recent Penguins-Capitals playoff trilogy, supports the division rivalry format because it’s doing what it intended: generate interest.
”We were actually talking about it the other day in the locker room: As much as you’d like to see one through eight or one through 16, then you’re having Calgary playing Florida, for instance, in the first round,” Cole said. ”Does that move the needle, as opposed to Boston versus Montreal, which certainly does move the needle?”
This format is locked in through at least next season.
”I think there was some good thought behind it and yeah, sure, there are going to be some divisions stronger than others,” he said. ”Some teams are going to get left out because of that or get in because of that,” Cole said. ”It’s one of those things that this is the current format and we work with it the best we can.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.
This might be it for the Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators. Both teams are facing elimination heading into their respective games tonight. Will we see two Game 7s on Wednesday? Will we even get one? We’ll find out soon enough.
The ‘Canes have the luxury of playing this do-or-die game at home, as they’ll look to bounce back against the Washington Capitals (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream). But in order for them to extend this series, they’re going to have to turn in a much better effort than they did in Game 5 on Saturday night.
“We were bad from start to finish, really,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said after Game 5, per the News & Observer. “It was tough to pick out a guy I thought had a good game. This time of year you need everybody on-board and for whatever reason we were all just a step behind and the score was indicative of the game.
Getting some kind of production from Sebastian Aho would also increase the Hurricanes’ odds of forcing a Game 7. The 21-year-old, who led the team in scoring with 83 points in 82 games during the regular season, has a respectable three points in five games in this series. But if you take a closer look at Aho’s numbers, you’ll see that he only has one assist in the three games that have been played on the road.
Game 6: Predators at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET (Dallas leads 3-2): As we mentioned before, the Predators have everything to lose tonight. In order to extend this series, they’ll have to find a way to win in Dallas. Nashville needs to find a way to stop Dallas’ top line if they want any chance of winning tonight. Getting the ideal matchup on the road is easier said than done, which means Peter Laviolette will have his work cut out for him in Game 6. (CNBC, live stream)
• The Stanley Cup Playoffs are unfair right now, but the Faceoff Circle explains why that’s okay. (Faceoff Circle)
• This women’s ice hockey team in Northern India is the first of its kind. (New York Times)
• Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne had his boyhood skates stolen on Good Friday. (St. Catherine’s Standard)
• The NCAA has changed some rules so that they can slow down the recruiting process. (College Hockey inc)
• The Philadelphia Flyers have officially parted ways with their Kate Smith statue and recordings. (Courier Post)
• The Montreal Canadiens might need to trade one of their top defense prospects to fill another need. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)
• The Islanders are expecting Barclays Center to rock now that they’re heading there for their second-round series. (Newsday)
• Steve Yzerman has a long list of things he needs to do now that he’s the GM of the Red Wings. (Detroit News)
• ESPN breaks down the inconsistent officiating that we’ve witnessed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (ESPN)
Bruins 4, Maple Leafs 2 (Series tied 3-3)
The Maple Leafs had a chance to rid themselves of their demons when it comes to the Bruins. Instead, they’ll have to face them head on in Game 7 for the third time in six years on Tuesday. Brad Marchand had a three-point game, including two goals, as the Bruins ensured TD Garden will see at least one more game this season. The Maple Leafs have two Game 7s to the Bruins since 2013. It will either be a hat trick for Boston or redemption for Toronto on Tuesday night.
Sharks 2, Golden Knights 1 [2OT] (Series tied 3-3)
An all-time heroic performance by a goalie that spurned a tired team to victory. These aren’t stories that are commonly written in the annals of hockey history, but Martin Jones produced something special and Tomas Hertl obliged his goalie, scoring a shorty in double overtime in one of the craziest games in this playoffs.
1. Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks
Something about 58 saves over four-and-a-half periods of hockey. Jones should be shrouded with love and gifts by his teammates after giving them every reason to forge ahead and find a winner when the Sharks looked dead tired.
Jones set a franchise record with those 58 saves in one of the greatest goaltending performances in years. Jones made 88 saves over Game 5 and Game 6 to help pull San Jose back from being 3-1 down in the series to now have a chance to close it out in Game 7 on Tuesday. It’s remarkable, given Jones was yanked in two of the first four games and gave up six in another.
2. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins
Three points for hockey’s favorite pest/superstar. Marchand scored off a faceoff in the first period to tie the game 1-1 and then drove the final dagger to force Game 7 on an empty netter with less than two minutes to go.
3. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks
Someone needed to be a hero at the other end of the ice while Jones was playing the role in San Jose’s zone. Who knew it would come on shorthanded?
Whatever it was, Hertl found the energy to will a wrist shot past Marc-Andre Fleury with the Sharks down a man after a slashing call on Barclay Goodrow around the midway point of the second overtime period.
How could it be anything other than a Game 6 double-overtime, shorthanded game-winning goal?