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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

It's time to fix NHL’s flawed, unfair playoff format

New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault directs

New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault directs his players during hockey practice at MSG Training Center on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke


In today’s episode of “Life is Unfair: NHL Playoff Edition,” we consider the New York Rangers, who find themselves on the opposite side of an ongoing debate from where they were this time last year.

They were nowhere then, having been dismissed abruptly in five games by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins.

The reason this did not sit well with many Rangers fans was that their crosstown rivals from Brooklyn strategically avoided that fate by slipping behind the Rangers and into the first Eastern Conference wild-card slot.

The Islanders thus avoided the tough Metropolitan Division bracket featuring the Capitals and Penguins to play the Atlantic Division champion Panthers, winning in six for their first playoff series victory of the millennium.

If none of the above made sense to you, fear not. You are not alone, because the now four-year-old format confuses all but the most avid fans, and even they sometimes struggle with ROW tiebreakers. (Don’t ask.)

Anyway, here we are in 2017 and the Rangers appear to be playing the wacky system to their advantage this time.

By finishing fourth behind Washington, Pittsburgh and Columbus in the Metropolitan — by far the toughest division — they made the same crossover that the Islanders did last year, drawing the Canadiens in the first round.

The Rangers won it in six. Next: the Ottawa Senators, whose 98 regular-season points ranked them sixth among the eight playoff teams in the East, and were four fewer than the Rangers’ total.

So, yes, the wild-card team is favored in the series that begins Thursday in suburban Ottawa, but Senators coach Guy Boucher took that to an absurd extreme Wednesday when he said this:

“Well, from what I hear from everybody we don’t seem to have much of a chance. We’re 10-1 in Vegas against us (to win the Cup), and everybody seems to think that they’re going to roll all over us, so I guess they’re a pretty good team.”

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, who during the last round drove home the point that the Canadiens were favored, could not help smiling when news of Boucher’s remarks were relayed to him.

“It is what it is,” Vigneault said. “A coach throws things out there, but at the end of the day players from both sides, that white noise that’s out there, when it comes time to play, they don’t care. They just play.”

It’s all part of the fun, such as an entertaining media moment when Mats Zuccarello was asked about his close friend Derick Brassard, the Ranger-turned-Senator who Vigneault told players was no friend this week.

“Who?” Zuccarello said. “I don’t know him.”

Hey, we’ll take what we can get given the relatively juice-free vibe of this interdivisional, international matchup of non-rivals.

This is where I should go over the evolution of playoff systems, but I will spare you, including the early 1980s iteration that barely recognized the existence of geography and resulted in the Islanders and Flyers meeting in the Stanley Cup Final.

Look, every system has its flaws. But a system that has allowed the Capitals and Penguins — the two best teams in the NHL this season — to meet in the second round two years in a row surely cannot be right.

The vote here is a conference-based format — 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, etc. — with a seeding boost to division winners. Under that plan, last year the Isles would have faced the Rangers in the first round, a matchup we have been waiting for since 1994.

If not that, could we at least reseed to avoid what has befallen the Capitals and Penguins?

But the Rangers and Ottawa it is. Although Boucher overdid it, it is true that many give the edge to the Rangers.

The Rangers never would acknowledge publicly that they are favored, but I tried to nibble at the edges of the matter with Henrik Lundqvist, asking whether there are pros or cons to facing a less familiar opponent.

“No, at this point there are no secrets,” he said. “I think both sides have a lot of meetings, you watch video, you go over everything, what to expect and what you need to do. It comes down to execution. Who does it better? But there are no secrets.”

Fair point.

New York Sports