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How the NHL waters down the rest of the playoffs by loading up on 1st-round rivalries

An over-emphasis on first-round rivalry matchups comes at a cost for fans later on in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Philadelphia Flyers - Game Three Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Since the NHL’s inception more than a century ago, the Stanley Cup Playoff format has changed 26 times. The league’s current version is only in its fifth year. Prior to the 2013-14 season, there were three divisions in each conference, and the top eight teams in the conference made the postseason, with a re-seeding after each round.

The changes made in 2013 largely benefited the regular season. Every team now plays each other at least once at home and once on the road, boosting interest in teams across the league and attendance for out-of-market fans.

Cutting two divisions and realigning where teams fell allowed teams like the Stars and Red Wings to compete in their own time zones, helping their television ratings. The realignment also provided new opportunities for rivalries, particularly in the Eastern Conference, which saw four Original Six teams brought into the Atlantic Division.

The current format is naturally conducive to early-round rivalries.

Along with the changes to the regular season came a new playoff structure. The top three teams in each division make playoffs, with two wild card spots awarded to the next two teams in the conference. The winner of each division faces off against a wild card team, while the second- and third- place teams face each other.

The regular-season format has boosted those in-division rivalries, but matching the second- and third- place teams nearly guarantees that those major rivalries will be out of the way by the end of the first round. While it’s important for the league as a whole to have a successful regular season in terms of interest and engagement, their best product is supposed to be the Stanley Cup Playoffs. By eliminating these rivalries early on, the league is hurting itself.

This year’s first round includes four matchups that would be more meaningful deeper into a playoff run.

Though not as long-standing as either of their rivalries with the Kings, the Sharks and Ducks are teams that have never been particularly friendly with each other. Three games between them this season saw less than five total goals, and all three were decided by a single point. When these California rivals face off, they know they’ll have to grind out a win. It’s physical, too, in a way that feels more fitting for a later-round playoff meeting:

Just as with the California rivals, both the Bruins and Maple Leafs have a bigger feud with the Canadiens. Still, two Original Six teams that face each other four times a year have had plenty of time to let resentment build — over the long and short terms.

Of the rivalries involved in this post-season, the Flyers and Penguins definitely like each other the least. The Battle of Pennsylvania is so important that both organizations opposed being in different divisions as a result of the 2013 realignment. While their games are always dialed up to a hundred, it’d be fun to watch the Flyers duke it out with their fans’ arch-villain, Sidney Crosby, later on in the playoffs.

The Golden Knights and Kings don’t have a long history, of course, but they could build something special in time in the Pacific Division.

These series are still great early, but it’d be better for the sport’s fans if the league made it likelier for them to occur with the highest stakes possible.

Rivalries are extra physical and exhausting, so having a bunch of nasty series at the beginning hurts the playoffs later on.

As teams are eliminated from playoffs, a constant fixture in the NHL is the reveal of just how many players were skating through injuries and the severity of the injuries involved.

This exact phenomenon may have cost the 2016-17 Senators the series against the would-be Cup-winning Penguins. An astounding 15 players were battling injuries while taking the reigning champions to seven games before getting knocked out of contention in the Eastern Conference Final.

By the third round of playoffs, the mountains of injuries make the competition less about seeing the best of the best compete, but are instead a display of which team is the least mangled — and those heated early-round rivalries only serve to bring on the injury bug all the sooner. There have already been controversial hits in a couple of those series mentioned above, including one that got the Leafs’ Nazem Kadri suspended three games.

The playoffs should build from one round to the next. But instead of seeing the best teams in the league by the conference finals, every division will see a top-three team knocked out right away. Last year saw the Presidents Trophy-winning Capitals and fourth-overall Blue Jackets eliminated before the Eastern Conference Final, as they compete in the same division as the second overall Penguins. The Conference Final came down to two teams with hardly any history facing off against each other while nursing their own wounds.

Is there an easy solution? Returning to the past is one option.

The current system has its benefits, as the league will see it. Guaranteeing at least four series to be division rivalries in any given year is good for marketing, good for ticket sales, and good for revenue. Divisional meetings save on travel costs in the first round. They allow the NHL to push it bracket challenge every year, an impossible task when teams are reseeded after each round.

Going back to seeding the top eight teams in the conference could provide relief in the early rounds by making the matchups more random and breaking up those rivalry series. The best teams in every division will stand a better chance to advance to the conference finals every year. The Stanley Cup Final will be more likely to be a true best-of-the-best event, which will only serve to grow the game and engage new fans.

But as it stands, the league wants those four guaranteed rivalry games every year, even if the product that comes afterward suffers.