The 2013-2014 NHL season marks the first which features conference realignment with major playoff implications. One aspect of the realignment was to condense the amount of divisions from six to four, and the other was moving teams to create more geographic rivalries. As such, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings moved from West to East, while the Winnipeg Jets moved West.
On the one hand, the NHL got its wish: Of the eight first round playoff series, four feature natural geographic rivals facing off. The Pittsburgh Penguins meeting the Blue Jackets was exactly what the NHL was looking for in moving Columbus, and St. Louis versus Chicago, San Jose versus Los Angeles, and New York versus Philadelphia pit rivals against one another.
On the other hand, the new bracket-style playoff system creates unfavorable match-ups due to its rigidity. Whereas Boston might have expected, if they advanced, to play the weakest team still remaining in the second round, it must now face off against red-hot Montreal, who dispatched the Tampa Bay Lightning in four games. The NHL accepted this as a possibility when it moved to a bracket system, no doubt to try and cash in on America’s obsession with brackets. But it does not make the Bruins feel any better, and it certainly is not the fairest way of running the playoffs.
But back to rivalries: NHL fans this year are more than just a little spoiled, given the great series in the first round. Aside from those geographic rivalries listed above, fans got to watch two of the "Original Six" teams face off in the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings. These rivalry series also seem to have an extra something in them. In the first 19 games played so far in the rivalry series, 9 have been decided by one goal or less, and five of those were overtime thrillers, some lasting through multiple overtimes.
These rivalry series also always seem to get more chippy and nasty than the regular series. There is much more of a sense of pride in the players, and some of the teams, like the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, really seem to hate one another and try as hard as possible to fight each other without having to serve any penalty time. Fans should try not to miss any of these epic clashes, and the further these series go, the more interesting they will become.
The youngest team in the NHL, by average age at just a hair over 26, the Blue Jackets are making a name for themselves by making the playoffs for the first time and taking it to the heavily-favored Penguins. Led by Brandon Dubinsky and Jack Johnson, who have combined for 11 points in their first four games, the Blue Jackets have played the Penguins tough. After losing two games despite holding 3-1 leads in each, Columbus returned the favor by beating the Penguins in overtime after trailing by the same score.
Speaking of young, the most talked-about player this playoffs is also the youngest by a wide margin, and he’s being touted as the next big thing in hockey. If you have not heard the name Nate MacKinnon yet, you had better get used to it, because the 18 year-old Avalanche center is lighting it up in these playoffs, already registering 10 points in his first five playoff games.
Talking to NHL.com Network reporters, MacKinnon admitted to some nerves despite his stellar start, "I had some goose bumps early on, but it was exciting," he said. "I had some butterflies, but they went away pretty quickly and you focus on winning.” Tune in to the Avalanche versus Minnesota Wild series just to catch a glimpse of the young player in his early years.
The last thing we should keep in mind for the duration of the playoffs is something that we already know: Never turn off or leave the room when a playoff game is tied up in the third period or beyond. At this point, Congress might as well sign this into law, because to do so is criminal.
The tension and anxiety-ridden play in tied playoff games is unmatched in any other sport. The feeling that a goal can come at any time and that it has the potential to swing the series in either direction is both awesome and terrifying. Though these games could go for multiple overtimes and beyond, the emotional roller-coaster they take us on always makes it worthwhile.