If keeping track of the new NHL alignment and division names has not thrown you for a loop yet, then there is a chance the League's new playoff format might. So just in case, here is a quick refresher.
For the first time since the 1993-94 season, the Stanley Cup playoffs will be changing its structure. No longer will teams be seeded based on how they finish in their conference by playing 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, and so on. Instead, a bracket will be implemented for the top three teams in each division, along with a wildcard system.
Qualification for the playoffs
- As it was before, sixteen teams will make the playoffs, with eight from each conference.
- The top three teams from each of the four divisions will automatically be awarded a playoff spot. (For those keeping track, that makes up twelve of the playoff teams. Next is where it gets a little tricky.)
- The remaining two playoff spots for each conference will be determined by a wildcard system. Out of the remaining teams that do not finish within the top three of their division, they will be ranked in order by season record, regardless of which division they're in. These best remaining two teams from each conference will receive a wildcard spot.
How teams are matched up
- Each of the four playoff rounds will still be determined by a best-of-seven series, but teams will no longer be reseeded after every round. A bracket system will instead be used. (Maybe now ESPN will start paying more attention to hockey again?)
- The team with the best record in their conference will play the second (worst) wildcard team, similar to the previous 1 vs. 8 setup.
- The other team that finishes first in their division, but not in the conference, will play the first (better) wildcard team.
- With the top team from each division playing a wildcard team, this leaves the second vs. third team in every division to play against each other.
- The winner from each first series will face the next team in their division. The first round of the playoffs will be called the Divisional Semifinals and the second round will be the Divisional Finals.
This link from NHL.com provides an illustration of what the bracket would look like if the playoffs started today.
There is one interesting, and confusing, factor to note. Although the first and second rounds of the playoffs are classified as divisional matchups, this very well may not be the case for each series. As previously noted, the two wildcard spots for each conference are awarded to teams based on points, regardless of their division. This means five teams from one division could make the playoffs, while only the top three from the other division qualify. For example, the Boston Bruins, who have already clinched the best record in the Eastern Conference, will play the second wildcard team in the Atlantic Divisional Semifinals, regardless of whether or not that wildcard team is a member of the Atlantic Division. There is a fair chance, although not definite yet, the Bruins could play the Columbus Blue Jackets, who currently holds the second wildcard spot. What would be even more peculiar is if the Blue Jackets were to win both the first and second rounds and be dubbed the Atlantic Divisional Final winner, despite the fact they play in the Metropolitan Division. So far, the NHL has not provided an explanation for how this possible scenario would be recognized.
This new format will definitely take some getting used to, but should provide an interesting change of pace to a previous long-standing playoff system. Whether or not fans will like this new format is still too early to tell, or if teams will actually win their own divisional final for that matter.