Feb 3, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray (30) makes a save against Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Nick Foligno (71) during the second period at the PPG PAINTS Arena. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
The Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks played Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena in a game that could be a preview of the Stanley Cup Final.
Both teams entered with 103 points. Difference is, the Blackhawks are positioned to earn the top seed in the Western Conference, and the Penguins were in third place in the Eastern, behind Washington and Columbus.
Which makes the Penguins' road to repeat as Cup champions a particularly brutal one, given the oddities of the NHL's playoff format.
Instead of being rewarded for having the second- and third-best records in hockey, the Metropolitan Division-rival Blue Jackets and Penguins appear headed for a first-round matchup, with the winner likely to play the NHL-leading Capitals in the second round.
If that isn't the dumbest way to reward the NHL's top three regular-season teams in the postseason, I don't know what could be worse.
No wonder Penguins coach Mike Sullivan kept a stiff upper lip when asked about it.
“My feeling on it is, the format is what it is. We can't control it, so we're going to just play and that's what our team does,” Sullivan said. “In order to win the Stanley Cup, you've got to beat good teams to get there, regardless of what the format is.”
That's the cliche response you would expect from an NHL coach who faces the daunting task of having to beat Columbus and Washington in back-to-back series to reach the conference final.
Inside the Penguins dressing room, the players are a bit more candid about the NHL's playoff format, which changed with realignment before the 2013-14 season.
“I think you're a little bit frustrated by it,” Penguins center Nick Bonino said. “You should be rewarded for your play, but at the same time, they went to (this format) to promote first-round matchups that people want to watch. If that's what's intended, it's working. ... We've come to terms with it. It's good for other divisions.”
Especially those in the Atlantic, where first-place Montreal (95 points) likely will play the New York Rangers (97 points) in the first round, making the division champion an unlikely underdog.
Which makes finishing fourth in the Metro seem more beneficial than placing second or third. Not only are these regional matchups bad for TV ratings, but they are counterproductive because they eliminate some of the top teams early.
It makes you long for the days when the NHL seeded its teams from each conference Nos. 1-8 for the playoffs. If that were the case, the Penguins likely would play Ottawa instead of Columbus.
The Penguins sound resigned to their fate, knowing they can't change the format.
“We'll try to give ourselves the best seed we can and hopefully give ourselves the last change for as long as we can,” defenseman Ian Cole said.
“There's a lot of good teams in the NHL and a lot of good teams in our division and our conference, so to win the Stanley Cup it's always going to be a long, hard road. We know that, no matter what path you take, it's going to be a tough one.”
NBC analyst Eddie Olcyzk calls himself “old school” when it comes to the NHL playoffs, and he said he prefers a format that would do away with conference matchups, let alone divisional meetings.
“I would love to see 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, 3 vs. 14...,” Olczyk said. “Then you have the opportunity to have a Pittsburgh-Washington final. You have a chance to have a Chicago-St. Louis final. You've got a chance to have an L.A.-Anaheim final.”
As much as the NHL playoff format appears to be punishment for the Penguins, the opposite could be true.
There's a flip side, and it's that the past three Stanley Cup champions have not been the teams with the easiest road. Since the change in the playoff format, the Cup champions have finished third (Los Angeles Kings), third (Blackhawks) and second (Penguins) in their respective divisions. Another reason for optimism: The Penguins of the Crosby-Malkin era haven't lost a playoff series to the Blue Jackets or the Capitals.
That doesn't excuse the NHL for its pathetic playoff format, but it should make you feel better about the Penguins' chances to win another Cup.