The Columbus Blue Jackets travel to Madison Square Garden today to take on the New York Rangers. This is a match up between two of the NHL’s contenders and may prove significant in determining playoff seeds. In a divisional tilt towards the back end of the season, winning this game should put a team in a stronger position to win the Stanley Cup.
The reality is that it doesn’t.
It’s all in the Playoff Format
The NHL realigned its postseason format for the 2013-2014 season. Before the realignment, division winners were ranked as the top teams, and every other team was ranked below them based on total points. Then, the 1st seed played the 8th, 2nd played the 7th, 3rd played the 6th, and 4th played the 5th.
This system rewarded teams who performed better by slating them to play weaker opponents in the playoffs. In doing so, it incentivized teams to win more games so that they may have an easier road to the finals. With the new playoff format, that isn’t necessarily the case.
In the new playoff format, the two division winners play the Wild Card teams. The division winner with the most points plays the bottom Wild Card, and the second division winner plays the top. Then the 2nd and 3rd ranked teams in each division will play each other. The NHL instituted this format to help promote rivalries. This may be the case most years, but when a division like the Metropolitan becomes so dominant, it may be in the best interest for 3rd seeded teams to sneak back into the Wild Card.
The Current Playoff Scenario
The Rangers are currently 3rd in the Metro, 7 points back of the Capitals. The Jackets are the top Wild Card, just 2 points behind the Rangers with two games in hand. They are also 13 points up on the Bruins, who are hanging on to the final Wild Card spot. Both teams are essentially locks to slip no farther than that top Wild Card.
If the playoffs were to start today, the Rangers would play the Penguins. The Blue Jackets would end up taking on the Montreal Canadiens, who actually have 7 less points on the season. If the Jackets win today, it would put them into third place in the division with two games in hand, and slide the Rangers back into the Wild Card.
Playing the Habs in the first round seems much more favorable than taking on this Penguins team, who will be getting healthy right as the playoffs start. That being said, I don’t think that it is time for a surefire playoff team to think about playoff positioning. Both of these teams could still realistically win the Metropolitan, which would be the most beneficial option.
Though I expect this to be a highly competitive game, it’s interesting to think if the same would be true 18 or 19 games from now. NHL players and coaches love to win, but would a team sacrifice one or two games for an easier road to the Cup? It certainly is conceivable.
Featured Image is Credit of Russell LaBounty, USA Today Sports