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.
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.
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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.