That imbalance has led some to push to abandon the division playoff format and go back to seeding teams one through eight by conference. Why stop there? The minor league that brought 3-on-3 overtime to hockey more than a decade before the NHL followed suit is adding a new innovation this season for the playoffs.
The Southern Professional Hockey League will use a "pick your opponent" playoff format, with the first-place team choosing its first-round opponent from the teams that finished from fifth to eighth place, then the second- and third-place teams makes their choices before the final two teams get matched up. In the second round, teams will be matched by regular-season points.
SPHL President Jim Combs said he decided to bring this format to his 10-team league after a conversation with an executive from Austria's Erste Bank Eishockey Liga, which already uses it. "I immediately knew this was the greatest idea I'd ever heard," Combs said. "The person at the top earns the right to pick the weakest of the bottom four. He can base it on travel, he can base it on difficulty of opponent, how the guy has been playing the past three or four weeks. A lot of times, you don't want the eighth-place team because that's the guy who has hustled and played hard and put the team together the last two or three weeks of the season. That's the hot team."
Combs said most teams started the year with thoughts of following the old format of picking the team with the fewest points as the opponent. But as the season has gone on, Combs said teams seem more open to picking what they believe is best matchup.
Calgary coach Glen Gulutzan said if the format was used in the NHL, he'd probably make it known he'd pick the lowest seed available in any case. "The first thing that comes to my mind is all of us coaches are paranoid," Gulutzan said. "So to actually have to pick somebody, you think immediately we've given them some fuel in a playoff series, right, like: 'Oh yeah, they picked us.'"
To add even more intrigue, the SPHL will broadcast the selection show at the end of the season so fans and teams can watch live as the matchups are chosen and the extra motivation is created for whoever is picked as the most desirable playoff opponent.
"I think there would be some bulletin board material," said Columbus defenseman Ian Cole, who won the Stanley Cup the past two seasons with Pittsburgh. "I think that would certainly fire a team up if you're picking them because you think you could beat them."
Dallas general manager Jim Nill agrees with that sentiment, saying "it might be great for their league, but it's not something I'd encourage our league to do and I couldn't see it ever happening." Others are more intrigued by the idea, pointing to the unfairness last year that had Pittsburgh and Columbus matched up in the first round despite finishing with the second and fourth most points in the league, respectively.
"It sounds like a great idea," Buffalo backup goalie Chad Johnson said. "I mean, why not if you're in first place you should have that choice of who you want to play? It gives you that advantage regardless, because sometimes the eighth-place team, you might have struggled against them, right?"
Combs said he has heard from executives from other minor leagues, NHL teams and a few people from the NHL league office about the new format and hopes it will become more widespread after people see the added drama it creates even if there is some initial hesitation.
"In 2004, when we started 3-on-3 overtime, everyone laughed at us and said 'Hey this will never happen at the top level,'" Combs said. "We played it for 10 years and the NHL adopted it, they're playing it, they revamped the All-Star Game. They have totally embraced it. Will the NHL take this? They might. I don't know why after all this excitement every sport wouldn't do it."
GAME OF THE WEEK Pittsburgh at Toronto on Saturday. Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews has been sidelined since Feb. 22 with an apparent shoulder injury but could be ready to return this weekend for a showdown against Sidney Crosby and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Even if Matthews can't go, this is still an intriguing game between two Cup contenders.
LEADERS Through Tuesday's games: Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 40; Assists: Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia) and Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg), 57; Points: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 86; Wins: Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay), 39; Goals-against average: Carter Hutton (St. Louis), 2.02; Save percentage: Hutton, .934.
AP Hockey Writers Larry Lage in Detroit and John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.
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