New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30), of Sweden, turns aside the puck during the third period in an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, March 27, 2012, against the Minnesota Wild in St. Paul, Minn. Lundqvist had 24 saves on the night as the Rangers won 3-2. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)
The top three teams in Eastern Conference are listed in their proper order in the Atlantic Division.
The New York Rangers.
The Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Philadelphia Flyers.
There's no denying those three teams have been the class of the conference this season. The Rangers will likely get their just reward for finishing first: The No. 1 seed in the playoffs and home ice for as many rounds as they're alive chasing the Stanley Cup. Fair enough.
The Flyers and Penguins? Well, if the regular season ended Wednesday, they'd play each other in the first round, and the Flyers would have to trudge their 96-and-counting point total to Pittsburgh for Games 1 and 2—and, of course, Game 7, if needed.
Not so fair.
But that's just the way it is in the NHL, where division winners are seeded in the top three spots for the post-season ahead of teams with the whopping point totals. In the East, that means division leaders Boston (Northeast; 93 points) and Florida (Southeast; 89 points) are placed ahead of the Penguins (100 points), Flyers and New Jersey Devils (92 points entering Wednesday night) in the playoff race.
In the West, Pacific Division leader San Jose (88 points) is trying to hold off Dallas and Phoenix (87 points apiece) for a division crown and the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. That would put the champion ahead of Detroit, Nashville and Chicago, who all have cracked the 90-point total. Those three teams play in the Central Division and lag behind leader St. Louis.
In the NHL, teams can get rewarded with home ice even with a worse record and fewer points than their opponent.
Does this need to be fixed? Is there another way?
If the players have any say, the bugs in the playoff format need to be addressed.
"I hope they do evaluate it because it's antiquated," Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said.
The NHL has this system because of an unbalanced schedule that forces teams to play their division rivals six times and non-division rivals four times. The league also wants to make division races matter over the course of the grueling 82-game season.
That doesn't matter to some players, who believe the best teams should start with the weaker ones in the post-season, same as other leagues. Not that it necessarily matters (i.e., Duke vs Lehigh in the NCAA tournament).
"Why not look at strength of schedule," said Miller, a member of the NHL's competition committee. "You can almost do like an NCAA thing where, at the end of the year, everybody ranks how you did against top-tier teams. But that gets complicated. That's just my idea. I haven't heard anybody else talk about it. And I don't even know if it's really smart, because we do play everybody. As for college, everybody doesn't play against each other."
Here's the real kicker: In the East, the Devils are in great position in sixth place, not the Penguins or Flyers in fourth and fifth. The Devils would open against the Panthers—so the Flyers would be better off losing some of their final games instead of trying to gobble points. The Flyers wouldn't do that, of course, but this kind of flawed system leads to fans playing with those kinds of conspiracy scenarios.
"I think it's easy to pick apart the system this year because we have four teams in the division this year that are doing really well," Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik said. "There's a reason why that rule's in place. I mean yeah, it's been talked about this year where maybe the division winner automatically makes the playoffs but you seed them where they'd be seeded, so Florida would be eighth or seventh, same with Boston.
"Maybe that's a better way of doing it."
Orpik has the right idea—seed teams 1-8 based on points. Based on Wednesday's standings, the Penguins would open against Ottawa, and the Flyers would start at home against the Panthers.
"I'm sure the NHL is sitting there saying, 'You know what, it makes for good TV, because those games are meaningful games coming right down to the end," Sabres defenceman Robyn Regehr said.
Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson said he's never been part of a discussion among front office personnel about altering the current system. Howson liked the status quo.
"I think it should be the way it is," he said "There has to be a reward for winning the division. I believe it's appropriate."
Howson's not alone. Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said the current system is fair—even if it doesn't help out the Red Wings this season.
"If you're going to have divisions, you have to reward the division winners with something and right now that's a top-three seed," Holland said. "We all play different schedules. Some might have five good teams in their division, some three. But at the end of the day, there's so much parity in the league.
"In the playoffs, you're still going to have to win on the road if you're going to go anywhere."
With realignment and a new labour deal looming in the NHL, the system could hit the scrap heap within two years.
"I think that it could fix it," Penguins forward Steve Sullivan said. "I think they're going to tweak the system so there's going to be less divisions. It also gives them an opportunity to look at it and make it more fair for everybody."
Fair. That's all any fan, player or executive should want. Except for the two teams holding that position, who wants sixth place as a coveted seed?
Sure, from wild cards to mid-majors, no system in sports is perfect.
But the NHL's is as imperfect as any around.
AP Sports Writers John Wawrow in Buffalo, Will Graves in Pittsburgh, Larry Lage in Detroit and Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this story.