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NHL’s playoff system further lessens the importance of the regular season for teams like the Bruins and the Maple Leafs

NHL’s playoff system further lessens the importance of the regular season for teams like the Bruins and the Maple Leafs

By Kevin Flanagan

BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer

If Saturday afternoon’s sleepwalking 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers at TD Garden didn’t speak to the wariness of the Bruins who are playing out the string – with a six-point advantage over the Toronto Maple Leafs for home-ice advantage with only four games left to play in the regular season – I’m not sure what can.

Head coach Bruce Cassidy’s club has once again found its way into the top echelon of the NHL with hockey’s second season about to commence for consecutive springs, despite being the victim of bloodletting by the injury bug has put them through since the man they call Butch took possession of the top spot behind the Bruins bench some 25 months ago.

However, as his squad points towards the postseason that begins in a scant couple of weeks, it is no longer health that remains the biggest issue that might keep the Black and Gold playing into May for the first time since they were sent home early in 2014 by their ancient rival Montreal Canadiens, after cruising to the NHL’s President’s Trophy with a 117 point regular season.

In fact, the biggest obstacle in their way shines a spotlight on why the regular season is simply a joke these days.  And it is, in fact, the reason that hockey fans throughout North America will be robbed of seeing the best teams play each other as the best championship tournament in professional sports at the apex of the playoffs as spring turns towards summer.

“I don’t think that’s an advantage to Toronto or Boston to be — what could be the top three teams in the whole league from one division — and then to have to play that team in the first round,” said Lightning captain – and likely second-round matchup for the winner of the opening round of the Atlantic Division playoffs Steven Stamkos. “I don’t think that’s right and saying that you saw what [Pittsburgh] and [Washington] had to deal with for the last couple years.

“It is what it is, you can’t change it now, but I don’t think it’s the most fair in terms of why you play and the advantage you’re supposed to have come playoff time.”

Not surprisingly, B’s winger Brad Marchand – who despite the way he is despised in every other city in the NHL not named Boston – is in full agreement with his divisional rival.

“I don’t think it’s fair, not even looking at the way we’ve lined up the last couple years, that one would finish second and have to play a third- or fourth-place team compared to a seventh-place team,” said the Little Ball of Great.  “But it is what it is. It doesn’t matter who you play. If you’re going to win a Stanley Cup, you’re going to have to get through your whole conference anyway. So, at the end of the day, you play who you play and the best team will get through.”

Hockey Hall of Famer and current team president Cam Neely is on the same wavelength as his point-scoring provocateur when it comes to post-season scheduling.

“You know, obviously the last couple years you look at it and say it’s maybe not fair when you’re the top teams in the league and you fight hard to get home ice advantage and that’s what you shoot for and, you know, then you end up playing some tough teams before you even get out of your division,” said the NHL’s prototypic former power forward when asked about the format earlier last week.

“You know, we don’t want to look past anybody. We’ve got a really strong division with Toronto and Tampa, so would I like to see two play seven?  Probably.”

And so should the NHL’s commissioner.  If the point of the playoffs – after a poorly crafted and much too long regular season – is to see the best teams play at the most exciting time of the season, this plan will once again fall terribly short of that goal.

As of the time of this posting, the Lightning, Bruins, and the Leafs have three of the top six regular season records in the NHL.  That being said, two of those teams seasons will be done by the end of the second round of the four-round quest for the hardest trophy to win in professional sports.

How does this possibly make the game better?  Wouldn’t a Toronto/Tampa Bay or Boston/Tampa Bay or Toronto series make for more theatre in the middle of the month of May than in an early round series that will likely be lost in the sheer number of opening round games that take place?

The only thing that is certain given this colossally messed up Stanley Cup playoff system is that at least a third of the best teams in the league will be on the golf course after the first two rounds for no other reason than the seeding system downright sucks.

And you wonder why Gary Bettman gets booed everywhere he goes.

Follow on Twitter @KevinMFlanagan.  Email at kflan@bostonsportsdesk.com

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