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Rangers the big winners, Caps among losers of archaic NHL Playoff format

Rangers the big winners, Caps among losers of archaic NHL Playoff format

The second round of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs are about to get started, and if you take a look at the bracket, you'll notice something strange.

The President's Trophy-winning Capitals have to face the Penguins, the team that finished just behind the Capitals for the NHL lead in points.

What that means is that the two best teams from the regular season have to play each other in the second round of the NHL Playoffs.

RELATED: CAPITALS vs. PENGUINS SCHEDULE ANNOUNCED

The reason the No. 1 and No. 2 teams are playing each other so early is because the NHL restructured the playoff format in order to have divisional teams face off against each other first, hoping to strengthen rivalries. It's an incredibly stupid idea, as Capitals forward Daniel Winnik has stated on several occasions.

The problem with the format is that when a division performs to the extent of what the Metropolitan did in 2017, the three top teams in the Eastern Conference end up in the same pod because the NHL wants divisional teams to play each other early in the playoffs.

When you add in the sheer chaos of playoff hockey, in which a No. 1 seed almost always gets eliminated early, the NHL ends up with wildly uneven paths to the Stanley Cup Final.

Consider this: When the No. 1 seed Capitals take on the No. 2 Penguins, it will mark the first time in six years that the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds faced off against each other in the playoffs. Having the top two teams face off in the playoffs should be the goal of the NHL on a yearly basis instead of a once-in-a-decade factoid.

But because the Capitals and Penguins are facing each other in the second round and not —say— the Eastern Conference Finals, it means there is at least one team with an unnecessary and highly favorable draw.

That team in 2017 is the New York Rangers.

The Rangers finished in fourth place in the Metro Division (48-28-6), but with 103 points, would have been good enough for second place in the Atlantic. The Rangers faced off against the Atlantic-Division champions Montreal Canadiens, a team that earned a No. 1 seed despite having the fourth best record in the East.

The Rangers knocked off the Canadiens and now face the Senators, the second-place team in the Atlantic.

If the Rangers advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, they will have avoided the top three seeds by points in the first two rounds. 

RELATED: NHL PLAYOFF POWER RANKINGS

This is what the East Bracket looks like under the current format:
1M: Capitals, 118pts
WC: Maple Leafs, 95pts

2M Penguins, 111pts
​3M: Blue Jackets, 108pts

2A: Senators, 98pts
3A: Bruins, 95pts

1A: Canadiens, 103pts
1WC: Rangers, 102pts

This is what the East bracket would look like under a standard playoff format
1. Capitals, 118pts
8. Maple Leafs, 95pts

4. Canadiens, 103pts
5. Rangers, 102pts 

3. Blue Jackets, 108pts 
6. Senators, 98pts

2. Penguins, 111pts 
7. Bruins, 95pts

A points-based playoff bracket would not change much in the first round: The No. 1 seed Capitals would still face the No. 8 seed Maple Leafs, and the No. 5 Rangers would still face the No. 4 Canadiens. But what it impacts is the second round. The Capitals would face the winner of the Rangers-Canadiens series, instead of the Penguins-Blue Jackets winner. 

A points-based bracket would reward the teams at the top of the Eastern Conference, not just the respective divisions. It would also prevent lower seeded teams from having an easier path to the Eastern Conference Finals in the event of a first-round upset. 

The NHL wants to build rivalries in early playoff series instead of what playoffs are intended to do: Weed out the lesser teams setting up a conference championship series between the two best teams.

We know that won't happen this season in the East, and the Rangers are the team benefiting from it the most. 

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Thumbs up, thumbs down: Nathan Walker impresses in preseason opener

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AP Images

Thumbs up, thumbs down: Nathan Walker impresses in preseason opener

The Capitals struck first Monday, but were shutdown the rest of the game in a 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Here are the players who stood out for Washington.

Thumbs up

Nathan Walker:
The young Aussie made the most of his opportunity on Monday with the Capitals’ lone goal on the night. Walker streaked up the ice along the boards, passed it to Lars Eller then crossed to the front of the net. He was in good position for the rebound and showed quick hands to get the puck and shoot it past goalie Keith Kinkaid for the shorthanded goal. It was a pure effort play and showed the exact type of spark the team is looking for in a fourth line winger. There were various times throughout the game when a Devil would try to muscle Walker out of the play and he would respond with a few shoves and slashes of his own. He did not back down from any challenge.

Braden Holtby: If you were worried Holtby’s rough postseason would follow him to the fall, that does not appear to be the case. The Caps netminder looked smooth as he turned aside 18 of 19 shots. The only goal came on a long distance slap shot through a screen. Granted, it’s a preseason game against a quasi NHL roster, but a solid performance for Holtby nonetheless.

Alex Chiasson: A player on a PTO cannot afford to have a quiet night. The team has every reason to want to play their prospects or other players already signed to a contract. Chiasson had a solid game, was in good position throughout the night and used his body well. His lone penalty of the night was a goal-saving slash on Kyle Palmieri so you can’t really hold it against him. He played like a dependable veteran player who the team could rely on as a bottom-six forward.

RELATED: WHY NESS' SKATING ABILITY GIVES HIM A LEG UP

Thumbs down

The refs: I understand that the NHL wants to emphasize slashing penalties and faceoff violations, but this game was absurd. I cannot remember if I have ever seen a penalty called for a faceoff violation ever. There were three in this game alone. Add in another six slashing penalties and you’ve got yourself a long night. In total, there were 20 penalties called. No one is expecting that to carry over into the regular season, but this felt unnecessary and made all the more frustrating by the multiple times in which play was whistled prematurely when the wrong team had possession of the puck.

Lars Eller: Eller assisted on the Capitals’ lone goal of the game, but he also had an unnecessary boarding penalty in the first period that brought the ire of the Devils players. He took two penalties for the game and, while the refs were certainly trigger happy with the whistles, considering the penalty issues he had at the beginning of last season this is not a pattern the team will want to see again.

Chandler Stephenson: Stephenson has 13 games of NHL experience under his belt meaning he should have a leg up over some of the younger players competing for a roster spot. And yet, Stephenson was essentially a non-factor on the night. He took two penalties in the first period and finished without a single shot attempt.

Christian Djoos: Djoos is in a battle to make the roster and he had essentially no impact on this game. He established himself as a playmaker in Hershey, but finished with a very pedestrian night in which he managed only one shot on goal despite over five minutes of power play time. He will need to do better than that to make the roster.

MORE CAPITALS: NATIONALS SLUGGER DANIEL MURPHY VISITS CAPS PRACTICE

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Aaron Ness’ skating could give him a leg up in Caps' D competition

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USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Ness’ skating could give him a leg up in Caps' D competition

It’s been a while since defenseman Aaron Ness felt he had a legitimate shot at earning an NHL roster spot.

“It’s exciting,” said Ness, who’ll be in the lineup Monday night as the Capitals open their seven-game preseason slate in New Jersey. “Anytime there’s a couple of spots open, it always amps it up a bit.”

Ness signed with the Caps as a free agent in July 2015 knowing Washington had a roster stocked with veteran D-men and that he’d likely spend the majority of his time with their minor league affiliate in Hershey. And that’s exactly how it’s played out. Two seasons ago, he saw 62 games in Hershey and eight in Washington. Last season, he played 51 games for the Bears and two for the Caps.

This year, however, things are much different.

RELATED: SIZE IS OVERRATED WHEN IT COMES TO CHRISTIAN DJOOS

The Caps have five defensemen on one-way NHL contracts, which leaves two spots up for grabs if you include the spare.

As such, the competition over the next couple of weeks figures to be fierce, with Ness duking it out with prospects Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Lucas Johansen, Connor Hobbs, Jonas Siegenthaler and journeyman Jyrki Jokipakka, who is on a professional tryout.

“You obviously have to prove yourself; that’s what camp is for,” Ness said. “For me, it’s showing what I can do and showing what I bring to the table.”

Ness’ experience gives him a slight edge over the youngsters; he’s played 39 NHL games since 2012, including 20-game call-up with the Islanders in 2013-14. But it’s his mobility and top-notch skating ability that could end up putting him on the Caps’ opening night roster.

“He’s been really solid down in Hershey and when he’s come up he’s played really well for us,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “The game has gone to skating, so no question, he is a guy that we have some trust in.”

Ness, who is listed at 5-10, 184-pounds, added: “That’s my game there--skating is huge for me. I’m not the biggest guy in the world.”

Asked to describe his game, he said, “I try to make a good first pass out of the D-zone, defend well and then jump up and create as much offense as possible.”  

At 27, this also represents Ness' best opportunity of earning an NHL job—and hanging onto it—since he was selected by the Islanders in the second round of the 2008 draft.

“This is the first time where there’s actually been spots available when I’ve been to a camp,” Ness said. “It’s for sure one of the best opportunities I’ve had so far. It’s an exciting time.”

Trotz says he sees a player who needed some additional seasoning in the minors but now appears “ready” to challenge for a full-time role in the majors.

“Different players take different opportunities at different times,” Trotz said. “He’s ready. If he continues to play well, he’ll definitely be in the mix.”

MORE CAPITALS: DANIEL MURPHY WAS A SPECIAL GUEST AT CAPS' PRACTICE