'If the playoffs started today...' Sizing up the Eastern Conference playoff picture
Ah, the greatest time of the year is right around the corner.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With the end of the regular season fast approaching (the Bruins have just 14 games left to play) it's easy to start looking ahead to April and the start of the real season. Playoff season.
The NHL realigned the conferences before the start of the year and introduced the new four-division format, teams switching conferences (Columbus, Detroit, Winnipeg), a retooled schedule that sees all 30 teams play in all 30 arenas, and a revamped playoff format.
We've seen all that realignment has given to the NHL, except for the most important part: the new playoff structure.
With the old format, the eight teams with the most points in each conference made the playoffs. The three division winners in each conference were guaranteed a top-three seed. As teams advanced, the brackets were reseeded, with the highest remaining seeds playing the lowest seeded teams.
The new structure takes some of the old format as well as interjecting some serious changes that at times can get to be pretty confusing.
What hasn't changed is how many teams qualify for the playoffs. That number is still 16, eight from each conference. Yet under the new rules, the top three teams in each division automatically qualify for the playoffs. That makes 12 teams qualified without much drama.
The other four spots are filled with 'wild card' teams, two per conference. The wild cards go to the teams with the highest point totals who finish outside of their divisions top three.
This means that any of the four divisions could either qualify as few as three teams, and as many as five. The Atlantic Division, as things currently stand, would be sending four teams to the playoffs (Boston, Tampa Bay, Montreal, Toronto).
The two division winners in each conference will play the two wild card teams. The top-seeded team will play the wild-card team with the fewest points. At this point in time, the standings would see the Bruins playing the New York Rangers, and the Pittsburgh Penguins would play the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The other series' take place within the division. The second and third ranked teams play each other, which with the current standings as they are, would see the Tampa Bay Lightning playing the Montreal Canadiens, and the Philadelphia Flyers playing the Columbus Blue Jackets.
You get all that?
The placements of these teams is still to be decided, obviously, but understanding the new format goes a long way in seeing the importance of these few weeks left in the season.
Boston and Pittsburgh don't have anything to worry about, as both teams will not lose their respective leads in the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions. Boston leads Tampa Bay by 16 points, and Pittsburgh leads Philadelphia by 15 points.
The real battles will be fought between the likes of Toronto, Tampa Bay, Montreal and a gluttony of teams from the Metropolitan division. Only three points separate Philadelphia, Columbus, the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals.
Tampa Bay and Montreal hold the two spots in the Atlantic at 81 points a piece, but the Maple Leafs are right behind them both at 80. In the Metropolitan, Philadelphia has 77 points and Columbus has 76, while Washington has 74. Slipping into the wild-card spots means playing either Boston or Pittsburgh in the first round, a scenario those teams do not want to see.
Iginla has sparked Boston's run to the top [via espn.com]
The Bruins' current nine game winning streak has vaulted them to the top of the Eastern Conference, as they have overtaken the Pittsburgh Penguins at the summit with 97 points. When before it seemed a formality that the Penguins would have the #1 seed, the Bruins winning streak has put them in the driver's seat for claiming the top spot and home-ice advantage through the Eastern playoffs.
The St. Louis Blues lead the NHL with 101 points and are looking to win home-ice for throughout the playoffs. The Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks also have 97 points like the Bruins, and adding the Penguins into the mix, the B's are battling four teams for the right for home ice in the Stanley Cup Final.
But we can worry about who has home-ice in the Stanley Cup Final at some other time. Winning home-ice for the Eastern Conference is a serious possibility for the Bruins, however.