New hockey playoff system creates classic mismatch

Don't look now, but the once-exclusive Stanley Cup finals are going to be left with a sub-.500 team going up against the defending champion New York Islanders.

The National Hockey League's new divisional scheduling format, which added welcome excitement to the regular season, has worked much less well in the playoffs.

A long, wearing, seven-month season is ending with a whimper instead of a bang.

The Islanders, looking stronger by the night, beat Quebec 4-2 Tuesday to claim their semifinal series -- for the championship of the Wales Conference, as the league prefers to put it -- in four straight games.

In the other semifinal, for the Campbell Conference title, Vancouver leads Chicago three games to one going into the fifth and possibly conclusive game tonight at Chicago.

So here we are, awaiting what should prove a classic mismatch for one of the most important trophies in the colorful kingdom of sport. Personally, I'd rather watch an Islander intrasquad scrimmage.

What happened?

Unfortunately, three of the four division winners -- Montreal, Edmonton, and Minnesota -- lost in the first round of the playoffs. Obviously the absence of the glamorous Canadiens, the season's most talked-about player (Wayne Gretzky of Edmonton), and last year's Cinderella finalists (the North Stars) struck a big blow right at the start.

Even worse, while Montreal's loss left several strong teams battling for the Wales title, Edmonton and Minnesota were the only winning clubs in the far weaker Campbell Conference. When both were upset, that half of the bracket was put at an immediate and monumental disadvantage in terms of both playing strength and public interest.

The intense rivalries developed by the new schedule during the season clearly carried over into the playoffs.

Montreal, one of the top three favorites, fell immediately to Quebec in an extension of their little civil war.

Edmonton, a stong second to the Islanders in the overall standings, was an even bigger disappointment. Unable to muster a significant defense in the conservatively-waged playoffs, the high-scoring Oilers were ousted by Los Angeles, which had finished 48 points behind them in their division.

Gretzky, who broke every regular season scoring record worth listing, was effective if not overwhelming. Meanwhile his young teammates found the pressure fairly suffocating.

These opening series were best three games out of five, rather than the traditonal four of seven used in all subsequent matchups. Naturally the teams that suffered surprise elimination would like to see an end to the short form, which gives stronger clubs less time to recover and assert their superiority if the underdog happens to grab a quick victory or two via a couple of breaks and/or some hot goaltending.

John Ziegler, the commissioner of the NHL, sees their point and expects it to come up at the league's next business meeting. He notes that the players might be expected to resist, however, since they would have to work more hours.

No one is fond of the fact that the early going calls for back-to-back games. That too can work against the better team. But the bloated playoffs, for which 16 of the 21 teams qualify, already extend through May, and to drag them out any further would be too much even for the NHL to consider.

The rationale for letting so many in is simple: money.

Says Islander general manager Bill Torrey, ''Let's not kid ourselves. We allow 16 teams in the playoffs because some of those teams need the playoff income to survive.

''It's easy for an outside observer, or even me, to suggest cutting the playoff teams in half and being more competive, but let's be men about it. Financially, with no network television contracts we'd be committing suicide.''

Pragmatic as that argument is, and conceeding that in a different year the format could produce provocative results, the current playoff system is still structured for disaster. Only the NHL's diehard fans can stay interested.

The National Basketball Association takes 12 of its 23 teams into the playoffs, but gives division winners a well-deserved bye, eliminating the possibility of losing any glamour teams right away. In these playoffs the first round is also an upset-prone quickie (best-of-three), but at least no division winners can get burned, and the field is quickly cut to eight solid teams.

The NFL takes only 10 of its 28 teams, and also reduces the field to eight before any division winners have to play.

Baseball, in normal seasons, is the most streamlined of the four major sports , with only four of its 26 teams qualifying for post-season play.

Hockey would do better, in my view, with any of those approaches. How much money can be involved? I would favor eight teams making the playoffs, two from each division.

The current format does add interest to the end of the regular season, but what's more important - the regular season or the Stanley Cup?

Right now the answer the league seems to be giving to that question is the wrong one.

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