On Friday the Capitals became the first team in the NHL to reach 100 points and clinch a playoff berth. You would expect that would mean they were leaving the rest of the NHL in their wake and for the most part, you're right. Yet, the Caps still find themselves in a tight race for the division.
On Sunday, both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets won their games. Sidney Crosby scored a hat trick to lead the Penguins to the 4-0 win over the Florida Panthers. Columbus meanwhile scored two penalty shots in a 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils. That leaves the top of the Metropolitan Division very crowded:
1. Washington Capitals, 100 points, ROW 45
2. Columbus Blue Jackets, 100 points, ROW 45
3. Pittsburgh Penguins, 99 points, ROW 42
Oh, did I say the Metropolitan standings? That's actually what the NHL standings look like too. Yes, as of Sunday afternoon the top three team in the league all reside in the same division. That will mean a much more difficult finish to the season than anyone would expect for a team that leads the NHL in late March.
This also raises questions about the NHL's current playoff format. In the divisional format, the team that finishes first in the division will get to play a wild card team, but the reward for the second and thrid place team will be a first round matchup against each other. The winner of those two series then face each other in the second round.
That means if the standings hold, two of the top three teams in the entire league are guaranteed to be eliminated before the conference finals. Granted, upsets happen so there's no guarantee any of these teams would make it deep into the playoffs regardless of the format, but considering the playoff seedings are in theory supposed made to reward regular season performance, this doesn't seem like the best way to determine plyoff matchups.
There's no perfect playoff format, but the current standings expose the glaring issues the NHL's divisional format has and it's not just a one year aberration. Last season, the Capitals and Penguins were the top two teams in the East, but they met in the second round.
Looks like the NHL may need to rethink things a bit when it comes to the playoffs.
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