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The NHL is confirming the biggest secret in sports: Regular seasons are meaningless

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What’s the point of all this if the best teams don’t win?

Something weird has happened in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Not a single No. 1 seed survived the opening round, with all four wild card teams advancing.

This confusing, bracket-busting course of events is so pronounced that the Carolina Hurricanes are now the odds-on favorites to win it all, after being given a 4.2 percent chance less than two weeks ago.

This serves as grand proof that regular seasons are utterly meaningless — especially in hockey. They drain our time, money, and effort — ultimately leaving us to ponder what was the point of investing that energy for six months if it meant being let down when it mattered.

A half-year of effort, injury, and glory can get erased in six days. We’ve become conditioned to believing that “every game matters,” hanging on power rankings as validation that the team we support is actually good, because it assuages our fears that it won’t be their year.

The anger when they aren’t given enough credit. The fear when they’re the hottest thing. The jubilation when they win, the disappointment when they lose — all proof positive that we, as fans, put entirely too much effort into something meaningless. The grim truth is a team doesn’t need to be great — they just need to be good enough to make it to the postseason, especially in the NHL.

The weirdness began with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who dominated the regular season before suffering a stunning collapse to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Calgary Flames followed, the second No. 1 seed to go down — this time to the Colorado Avalanche. Next up were the Predators, who also fell to a wild card team. The Capitals closed out the sweep, losing in double overtime in Game 7 to the Hurricanes to ensure hockey’s four best regular-season teams would all be home before May.

When the Lightning lost, it was a curiosity. A chance to goof on a No. 1 seed losing to a barely-.500 Blue Jackets teams that had to fight to be in the playoffs. It was punctuated by the Lightning’s Twitter account, which struggled to make sense of it all.

The Lightning, Flames, Predators, and Capitals combined for a record of 207-96-25 during the regular season. The Blue Jackets, Avalanche, Stars, and Hurricanes combined for 174-122-32.

On any given night during the regular season, fans of those teams delivering upsets only had a 53 percent chance of seeing them win. Tuning in and investing that energy as a fan left you disappointed almost half the time. There is nothing in entertainment that offers a lack of repeat satisfaction, yet continues to make us come back for more — to continue to be saddened.

Which brings us to the existential crisis of sports, typified after the Lightning’s loss.

“What are we doing here?”

Sean McIndoe of The Athletic asked the question we so rarely do in sports. The NHL, much like the NBA and MLB, operates on the platonic ideal that the best team should win. The entire basis of the game is foundered on the concept that lots of games to decide playoff seeding, followed by the best teams playing the weakest, partnered with giving the best teams home advantage should lead the season to its logical conclusion: the best two teams meeting in the finals.

But somehow, for the 19th season in a row, the NHL will not see its two best teams meet in the Stanley Cup Finals. Look at the last 10 years of Stanley Cup Finals, based on regular-season overall point standing.

  • 2017-18: Capitals (6th) beat Golden Knights (5th)
  • 2016-17: Penguins (2nd) beat Predators (13th)
  • 2015-16: Penguins (4th) beat Sharks (11th)
  • 2014-15: Blackhawks (7th) beat Lightning (5th)
  • 2013-14: Kings (9th) beat Rangers (5th)
  • 2012-13: Blackhawks (1st) beat Bruins (6th)
  • 2011-12: Kings (13th) beat Devils (7th)
  • 2010-11: Bruins (7th) beat Canucks (1st)
  • 2009-10: Blackhawks (3rd) beat Flyers (15th)
  • 2008-09: Penguins (8th) beat Red Wings (3rd)

You have to go back 18 years, to the 2000-01 season to find a Stanley Cup Finals which ended with the two best teams in the league playing each other. In the end the Avalanche, who won the President’s Trophy, prevailed over the Devils, who led the East all season.

On some level it’s laudable. It’s kind of beautiful that the Stanley Cup Playoffs are like a whole new season, beginning again from scratch — but it also renders much of the regular season utterly pointless. To be fair, the NHL handles the regular season with more veneration than other sports, considering how the Presidents’ Trophy is awarded — but what is it about hockey that creates this kind of mammoth disparity in April compared to other sports?

In the NBA, for example, over the same 18-year span a total of eight teams won the NBA Championship after being the best team in the league during the regular season. In MLB it happened four times, but with far more top-seeded teams in the mix at the end. This is a unique issue for the NHL, and the source of the existential crisis.

Seriously, what are we doing here?

There’s an intricate ballet that sports needs to be appealing. If the playoffs are never indicative of the season then the regular season loses all meaning. Why should fans tune in to watch their team if it’s meaningless in the end? Might as well start watching in April when the playoffs begin and save the time.

The inverse is true as well. If the playoffs always play out as an extension of the regular season, and feel like a foregone conclusion, then what’s the point of watching to see if an underdog can pull it off?

The NBA may have stumbled on something magic with its 44 percent mark, which blends a mix of predictability and the unknown that makes the sport enticing. But this near-parity on paper could also oversell an unknown element, considering several recent title teams coasted during the regular season. One thing is certain: The NHL has a weird problem on its hands right now. When the 2018-19 Stanley Cup Playoffs are over the best team in the league will have won the cup just 11 percent of the time.

If you’re a fan who hangs everything on taking home the ultimate prize, regardless of what happens along the way — then this tells you that 89 percent of the time your emotion, passion, and love is misplaced. Almost all your energy is wasted. If you’re more concerned with the journey of sports, at the very least there’s an ever-present reality that what you’re watching night in, night out might not represent an accurate telling of a season’s story. This is the larger impact of the reality that the regular season barely means a thing, April is everything and that’s what brings us to the collapse of the Lightning, Flames, Predators, and Capitals. For 185 days, the Lightning were the best team in hockey. None of it mattered.

“For six days in April, Columbus was the better team,” coach Jon Cooper said.

What are we doing here?