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NHL's playoff format isn't perfect, but it surely is welcome

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at a news

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at a news conference in San Jose, Calif., on Jan. 25, 2019. Credit: AP / Ben Margot

The NHL remains a long way from dropping a puck in a game that counts, but it took a major step in that direction on Tuesday by announcing a road map to that happy place.

To celebrate, let’s do something unusual for these past 2 ½ months and talk not about logistical nuances, health issues, international travel and other complications that will consume the league and its fans in the coming weeks.

Let’s talk instead, just for a change of pace, about . . . sports stuff.

Specifically: Are we OK with a format in which 24 of the 31 teams are invited to the playoffs, including a funky first round en route to identifying the Final 16?

In a word: yes.

Save the handwringing over a tainted “COVID Cup” champion for someone not old enough to remember four of six NHL teams reaching the playoffs, and later 16 of 21.

And this: An Original Six format in which, bizarrely, the semifinals featured the first-place team against the third-place team and second place against fourth place.

And the fact that regularly in recent years the current format produced second-round matchups featuring teams whose high-ranking, regular-season points totals suggested they should have met later in the postseason.

It is fair in baseball and football to insist on a postseason format that honors the importance of the regular season.

Traditionally in those sports, the playoffs are a reward for regular-season prowess, and opening that door too widely ruins things.

Hockey is different. More than any other sport, its playoff tournament historically has been a separate entity from its regular season, a postseason free-for-all whose intensity and unpredictability are part of the point.

Here is a complete list of teams in the past 15 full, non-work-stoppage NHL seasons that have won the Presidents’ Trophy for most regular-season points and gone on to win the Stanley Cup: the 2007-08 Red Wings.

Back to 2020: Did we mention there is a pandemic going on? Complaining about inviting eight teams that would not have made the playoff field otherwise seems a little nitpicky, no?

And remember, three of those eight happen to be the Rangers, Blackhawks and Canadiens, valuable Original Six brand names for television purposes.

As for the Islanders, there is no guarantee they would have made the postseason in a 16-team format. They would have if one goes by points per game played; they would not have if one goes by raw points.

It is much better this way. Fun, even.

The plan calls for the top four seeds in each conference to get byes but play a three-game round robin to determine seeding.

Seeds five through 12 in each conference would play best-of-five play-in series. (The Islanders face the Panthers and the Rangers get the Hurricanes.)

After that, still no word on whether the first two rounds would be best-of-five or -seven, and whether there will be reseeding or a firm bracket. (The vote here is best-of-five and reseeding, but I don’t get a vote, for some reason.)

No fans, of course, with two “hub” cities to be determined, one of which might well be Las Vegas and neither of which will be New York.

Half Hollow Hills High’s own Gary Bettman called the plan “our best option under the circumstances,” then tried to explain things further while his dog and 3-year-old grandson weighed in from the work-from-home background. (We’ve all been there, Mr. Commissioner.)

“This plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL,” Bettman said, correctly.

Soon thereafter NBC analysts were breaking down the two 5 vs. 12 matchups, an echo of a long-ago world where there was an NCAA Tournament to discuss, and the promise of a new world where we get to talk about actual sports again.

Is the NHL plan weird? Yes. Is it less than ideal? Yes. Is it something everyone hopes never will happen again? Yes.

But is it OK, all things considered? Yes. Drop the puck.

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