Playoffs: Spots Up For Grabs

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 postseason. 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 postseason 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 postseason 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 postseason. 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.