The cool fact about the NHL’s semifinal round is that while the Islanders and Lightning are meeting for a trip to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year, the other series pits the Canadiens against the Golden Knights, a matchup featuring the largest gap between inaugural seasons in league history, as those two teams started 100 years apart.
What the matchup highlights is that the NHL has stumbled onto something this year that could be a way forward to keeping the playoffs fresh and exciting.
It’s generally agreed and pretty clear that Vegas is one of the elite teams in the league this year, with the NHL’s fewest goals allowed and it’s tied for the third-most goals scored. The Canadiens, meanwhile, won only 24 of 56 games in the regular season, were outscored 168-159 on aggregate, and made the playoffs because there was a seven-team Canadian division and the Canucks, Flames, and Senators were straight trash.
Yet, the Vegas-Montreal playoff series has a good bit of intrigue, as the Golden Knights needed seven games to beat the Wild, before grinding through a six-game series with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Avalanche. The Canadiens, meanwhile, have won seven straight games, coming back from down 3-1 against overwhelmingly-favored Toronto and then sweeping Winnipeg without ever trailing in the series, the first time that’s happened in the league in six years, since Chicago annihilated Minnesota in the first round en route to winning the Cup.
Because they haven’t played each other this year, we don’t know how, exactly, the Canadiens and Golden Knights match up against each other. There’s an air of mystery about it that we just don’t get in an ordinary year when every team faces every other team.
The reason for having a schedule where all teams face each other is to ensure that fans in each city get to see all of the league’s stars, but in a GIF-and-YouTube world, that reasoning becomes ever less important, even beyond this year of little-to-no attendance in arenas. Is it that important for Connor McDavid to make an annual visit to Philadelphia, or San Jose to see Nikita Kucherov up close? Especially as the NHL moves into a new TV contract with partners who might go beyond saying “screw it, we’ll just put Buffalo, Chicago, or Pittsburgh on every week to bank an easy local rating,” the stars’ exposure being more on screens than in person is OK.
Meanwhile, this year’s divisional alignment, while not perfect, did have some very big upsides. The passion of the all-Canadian division was palpable, Sun Belt rivalries like Hurricanes-Lightning got a real chance to thrive (in a division where Chicago and Detroit were finally and rightfully reunited), and the compressed East was a blast as the Northeast corridor’s titans got their fill of each other.
Going forward, the NHL should consider the positives of what it had to do this season, and set up a schedule that gives us this kind of intrigue, i.e. a heavily division-based schedule, with a few games sprinkled in against the others. Perhaps the regular-season standings can be based on divisional play, while the inter-divisional games can comprise the kind of in-season tournament that the NBA is trying to set up.
By focusing on divisions rather than conferences, we can get these kinds of semifinal matchups where teams haven’t faced each other all year, and maybe get the same in the Final. The positive of divisional play rather than aligning by conference is that the first two rounds of the postseason can be based on rivalries, then when you get to the final four, you’re getting fresh matchups that feature geographical diversity.
If Vegas and Montreal had played each other this season, their series would offer a lot less in the way of unknowns. It’s not easy to get something fresh and exciting after six months of hockey. The NHL should take this rare gift, appreciate it, and take it as a rare positive to take forward out of the pandemic, reshaping the Stanley Cup playoffs for the better for years to come.