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NHL playoffs: The case for a shorter first round; plus a Sharks bite

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Butch Goring and Don Maloney

The good old days: The Rangers-Islanders best-of-five first round series in 1984 was epic. (Getty images)

By Sarah Kwak

We’ve reached the midpoint of the NHL playoffs, and maybe it’s the heat, with the temperatures in the upper 70s and 80s outside each of the arenas in the four cities remaining in the playoffs, or the two empty days before the conference finals start Saturday, but it’s got me thinking that maybe the NHL should think about tightening up the postseason. And maybe — just maybe — consider making the first round a best-of-five series.

Hear me out.

Of course, this year brought extenuating circumstances with the shortened schedule and the late start to the season, which necessitated a late finish. But still, one could argue a quicker first round would ensure better hockey at the end. Fresher players, fewer injuries, etc. I agree, of course, the first round is absolutely the best, with multiple games every night and the intensity of playoff hockey at its height. But a best-of-five first round would only magnify the intensity. Here’s a great example from the Islanders-Rangers rivalry during the days (1980-86) when the league used that format to open the postseason.

If we’d started with a best-of-five this year, would Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury have ever made it to Game 4? With more on the line early, coaches would probably reach for the panic button much sooner. Game 1 would mean so much more. Every game of that first round would feel like a must-win. Moreover, a best-of-five first round would also help build drama as the postseason goes along. The second and third rounds can often feel like a lull, like an extended prelude to the main event. But a relatively quick first round would in turn make the second round more substantial, more meaningful, and keep the playoffs from feeling stagnant, especially early on.

So with the league re-aligning next season, and most of the first-round series to be intradivisional affairs, it would make a lot of sense to move to a best-of-five opener like the league had from 1980 to 1986. Teams will already be well-prepared for their opponents, having played each other up to five times that season. You’d say goodbye to the “feeling-out period,” see the excitement of Game 7s sooner, and shave as much as a week off the postseason. It would make the Cup Final less a war of attrition and more of a championship matchup.

I’ve said my piece. I’m sure none of you will agree.

The Sharks bite

Another year, another unrealized Stanley Cup quest in San Jose. And yet, I am convinced the NHL’s perennial playoff also-rans will win it all one of these days. The only thing is, if not next season, I wonder very much when. The Sharks’ window is closing, and by the summer of 2014, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle will all face unrestricted free agency. Logan Couture, who is seen as the team’s future backbone, will be an RFA. So what’s it going to take to bring a Cup to San Jose next season?

The Sharks were abysmal on five-on-five scoring this season. They ranked 28th in even-strength goals, in front of only Florida and New Jersey, two of the most anemic offenses in the league. It’s an area in which the team has steadily declined over the last four seasons. Perhaps it’s the personnel changes — losing snipers like Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi or adding defense-minded Larry Robinson to the coaching staff — but general manager Doug Wilson will almost certainly have to address the problem in the offseason. Five-on-five scoring has a lot to do with grinding, cycling, working the hard areas and being able to convert. Expect San Jose to look for some grit with finish, like what Ryane Clowe brought when he was scoring for the Sharks.

  • Published On May 31, 2013
  • 8 comments
    MichaelWelling
    MichaelWelling

    If you want to shorten the season, cut the regular season down to 66 games. 4 against everyone in your division, 2 against everyone else. Playoff Hockey is the best hockey, and shouldn't be shortened.

    Ryan16
    Ryan16

    not a bad article, i still like the 7 game first round. to use this year as an example, my wings would have been sent home after game 5 loss to anahiem and would have missed out on 2 exciting wins to close the series and missed out on a exciting 7 game series v chicago that now has chicago primed for the championship

    SRT4nier
    SRT4nier

    I would rather see a shorter season, with a points break down as follows: Win = 3 Points, OT Win = 2 Points, SO Win = 1 Point. No points for a loss, ties don't exist. This would increase the intensity during the regular season to make up for a shorter season. Hockey really should not be played in June, when ice conditions are marginal even in the original six cities. 

    RobShelley
    RobShelley

    Definitely some pros to going back to a shorter opening round, but... in the last 10 years alone, 6 teams have come back from 3-1 to win the opening round (http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/feature/?id=5547). If that round was shorter, none of those awesome comebacks could have been possible. Plus, if you liked 5 intense games of Isles vs Rangers, wouldn't you want two more of those?

    I agree that the season is long. I'd like a 48 game season every year! That ain't gonna happen, though. I wouldn't be too upset if you're idea to return of best-of-5 for the opening round became a reality. However, there's already a lot of parity in the league and making it a race to 3 really punishes the top-seeded teams by allowing luck to have more prominence in the series. 

    BallRush
    BallRush like.author.displayName 1 Like

    Sarah, LOVE IT.  I would make you commissioner right now.  I would also suggest that, for the good of the NHL long-term, that there even be more changes.  Here are my additions to your ideas:

    1.  Shorten the regular season.  The 48 they played this year is enough.  Why?  Because meaningless games in November equates to no interest from people like me, a lifelong and avid fan of hockey.  My informal survey suggests that EVERYONE AGREES!  Duh!  The regular season is just a short-term grab for $$'s for tickets, concessions and local market TV revenue.  NHL teams are playing "small ball"...  the bigger play is to make the regular season games have meaning, and attract more $'s per game via national network coverage, higher ticket prices per game (but not per season), and more revenue per game from local TV markets.  They won't recoup everything in year 1, but in 5 years they'll make more on the regular season than they do now.  See the end of "March Madness" to see why every game will have even more meaning.

    2.  March Madness.  As the NHL's new czar of hockey, you are going to create a week of hockey that will be the most watched hockey games in the history of televised sports.  That means REVENUE Mr. Bettman!  You will give the top 8 teams a bye (division winners 1-6, and next two best records in league) and have a week of insane 1-game playoff hockey to see who plays the elite 8.  The remaining best 16 teams by record would square off in a "one and done" format to determine the match-ups with the elite 8.  Every night of the week there will be one or two games of amazing magnitude... win and you're in, lose and you go golfing.  And that means - going back to the regular season issue - that every team is fighting and scrapping in every game to either win their division, or seed themselves so their "one and done" game is at home.  24 teams make the playoffs...  just 16 left one week later.  Madness!

    3.  Opening Round.  You already said it.  5 games to determine the final 4.  Another week and a half of intense, must watch, every game has meaning, ice hockey!  More TV REVENUE!  Now the league is starting to feel like the NFL.  Fans biting their nails for EVERY GAME.

    4.  The Final Four.  Best of 7 sounds great to me.  With this plan, the NHL in 5 years has so much interest that these games are broadcast in prime time.

    5.  The Stanley Cup.  An intense regular season (Nov to Feb), an even more intense week of Madness, a nail-biting 5 game series, the best of 7 series unveiled in the Final Four, and then, in mid-April, the penultimate series for THE CUP.  The world is actually watching because hockey IS the greatest team sport ever invented and every game is exciting.

    5 1/2 months of hockey.  I think that's plenty, don't you guys?



    SRT4nier
    SRT4nier

    @BallRush I like some of your ideas, but they also seem too complicated to lure in the casual sports fan. Too many  different levels of playoff, play ins, etc.. but interesting. Shorter season, yes. 

    BallRush
    BallRush

    @SRT4nier @BallRush   Nah... it's not complicated, it's easy.

    1) Short Regular Season

    2) Playdown Round (Madness)

    3) Playoffs - Best of 5, Best of 7, Best of 7

    MattJanosko
    MattJanosko like.author.displayName 1 Like

    I'm sorry but that was absolutely the worst possible rationale for a shorter first round.....

    "one could argue a quicker first round would ensure better hockey at the end. Fresher players, fewer injuries, etc." It's better hockey at the end by default because it's the best teams who made it. Survival of the fittest...this is professional sports and not a cooking contest where everyone gets a trophy including the last place team.


    "a best-of-five first round would also help build drama as the postseason goes along. The second and third rounds can often feel like a lull, like an extended prelude to the main event." I'm a hockey fan...have been since I was a little kid....therefore, the game itself is what thrills me and there's absolutely no lull to any true fan and the playoffs never seem boring. Besides, I don't suffer what most of American sport "fans" seem to suffer from: attention deficit disorder....if I did I'd watch football and the useless hype machine that goes along with it.


    "But a relatively quick first round would in turn make the second round more substantial, more meaningful, and keep the playoffs from feeling stagnant, especially early on." Uh, every game is meaningful....you have to win 4 games in each round and win 16 overall to win a Cup. Ask the Capitals how many "meaningless" games there have been in the early rounds of the playoffs.


    "So with the league re-aligning next season, and most of the first-round series to be intradivisional affairs, it would make a lot of sense to move to a best-of-five opener like the league had from 1980 to 1986." Or they can just keep it the way it's been since from 1987 to 1993 it was also an intra divisional affair and nobody seemed to have a problem then. What's next? First round bye's?


    "Teams will already be well-prepared for their opponents, having played each other up to five times that season. You’d say goodbye to the “feeling-out period,” see the excitement of Game 7s sooner, and shave as much as a week off the postseason. It would make the Cup Final less a war of attrition and more of a championship matchup." Teams are already well prepared for their opponents. And no extra week for the playoffs would be shaved off because it used to be one conference played one night and the other played the next night....that all changed because of national TV contracts. As for the Final....IT IS a war of attrition and skill and desire...that's what makes the Stanley Cup playoffs both the best AND the hardest post-season tournament to win.


    "I’ve said my piece. I’m sure none of you will agree." You're right...nobody will and that should illustrate something. Besides, do you honestly expect the owners to sacrifice at least one game and possible more in gate revenue?