The Lightning have first place in the Atlantic Division locked up, so they’ll be playing the second wild-card team in the Eastern Conference. Their players, however, are still paying attention to the rest of the division. The Bruins and the Maple Leafs are just below them, fighting for second and third, and they might well face each other in the first round.
To the Lightning’s Steven Stamkos, that doesn’t seem right, given that the Bruins and Leafs could end up taking second and third in the conference depending on how the Metropolitan shakes out.
“It is what it is,” Stamkos said, via TSN. “It has been that way for a while now, you’re going to have to beat the best teams to win anyways whether it’s the first round or the conference finals. I understand where they’re coming from from a marketing perspective, wanting to get some rivalries early on, but from a perspective of what you’re grinding 82 games for during a season is to finish as high as you can so you can have that advantage come playoffs.”
The current playoff format has been in place since 2013, and it obviously pits the second and third finishers from each division against each other. While this can lead to some more intriguing first-round matchups, the locked bracket tends to hurt the more important series. The Atlantic has the Lightning with 110 points, the Bruins with 93 points and the Maple Leafs with 89. The Capitals currently lead the Metropolitan with 89 points, with the Islanders being second at 87.
“So I don’t think that’s an advantage to Toronto or Boston to be — what could be the top three teams in the whole league from one division — and then to have to play that team in the first round,” Stamkos explained. “I don’t think that’s right and saying that you saw what [Pittsburgh] and [Washington] had to deal with for the last couple years. It is what it is, you can’t change it now, but I don’t think it’s the most fair in terms of why you play and the advantage you’re supposed to have come playoff time.”
The Penguins and Capitals have played faced off in the second round of the last three postseasons. Pittsburgh has taken two of three, with Washington winning last season en route to their first Stanley Cup.
The Atlantic is unquestionably the division with the most dominant teams. Though the Islanders and the Flames are more intriguing stories, the Lightning, Bruins and Maple Leafs would all be considered favorites in the finals. But Stamkos’ gripe is with the division cannibalizing itself before the conference finals.
The NHL will likely never go to an NBA format of one through eight seeds, regardless of divisional standings. However, this year has definitely reopened the question of whether the league should revisit the format. Gary Bettman has incentive to do so, but for now this year’s first round is must watch in the East — just how the NHL likes it.