Playoff format shows no asterisks necessary for 2020 Stanley Cup champs

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The players on the Return-to-Play Committee had the option of truncating the playoffs, but instead chose to play four seven-game series. That speaks to their commitment to the good of the game and the integrity of the Stanley Cup tournament

If you still think this year’s Stanley Cup winner should have an asterisk beside its name for all of eternity, then you’re probably one of those people for whom nothing is good enough. You’re probably not the kind of person with whom most people would want to be stuck in an elevator.

With the news that all four of the playoff series after the best-of-five play-ins will be best-of-seven affairs and that teams will be reseeded after each round, any conception that this year’s Stanley Cup tournament is compromised or lacks integrity has to be smashed. If anything, it’s probably going to be more difficult to win a championship than ever before. If you’re a play-in team, you’re going to have to win 19 games to win a Stanley Cup and if you’re a top-four team, you’ll have to win 16 games and play three additional round-robin games.

The league announced on Thursday that the Return-to-Play Committee had come to a consensus on the rules of engagement. You’ll recall that when commissioner Gary Bettman outlined the league’s plans for returning, he said it had yet to be determined whether the first two rounds after the play-ins would be best of five or best-of-seven. He also said he would pretty much leave it up to the players.

Well, the players took best-of-seven, which should tell you something about how dedicated these athletes are. The next time you lament that they make millions for playing a game, consider that they are the ones putting their health on the line for the good of the game here. They’ve already collected all but one of the paychecks and may end up simply handing that last one to the league anyway. It would have been in their best interests to get these playoffs completed as quickly as possible. But it’s a testament to their level of dedication and their concern for the bigger picture that they decided to make the post-season even longer than the annual marathon it has become.

So now, let’s stop talking about this season being compromised. Any time you play 85 percent of the regular season and all of the playoffs that should be enough. In 1934-35, the Montreal Maroons played 48 regular-season games, and then played two two-game total goals series before sweeping the Stanley Cup final in three games. That’s a total of 55 games. In the last of their five straight Stanley Cups, the Montreal Canadiens played 70 games, then swept both playoff series for a total of 78. No asterisk beside them, nor should there be. Neither are there asterisks beside the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils or the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks.

What should make things really interesting will be the fact that the teams will be reseeded after each round, with the highest surviving seed playing the lowest surviving seed in the second round. That serves this playoff format better. First, the top four teams will be playing a round-robin tournament to determine the Nos. 1 through 4 seeds in each conference. So those games just became a lot more important. (It also sets the stage for some monumental upsets. Let’s say the Montreal Canadiens ride Carey Price’s coattails and defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the play-in round and the Boston Bruins end up on top of the round-robin standings. That would set up a series between the Bruins, who had 100 points, against the Canadiens, who had just 71. And we all know that when those two teams face each other in the playoffs, all bets are off.)

Meanwhile, this year’s playoffs could be drawn out to a maximum of 68 days, which could take it into early October. This is a mammoth undertaking for the league. From quarantining players to dealing with a possible second wave to testing hundreds of players each day, this is going to take everything both the players and the league can muster. If they can actually pull this off, it will represent just as mammoth an achievement. If there’s any asterisk beside this year’s champion, it should be to commemorate that team for overcoming more obstacles than any other team in NHL history.

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