The NHL has gone wild. Well, for the postseason format at least.
While the change, driven by division realignment, to the qualification and seeding system was slight, the final week of the regular season has slanted a little differently than in the past.
Loosely following what other leagues — the NFL and MLB — have done for decades now, the NHL has added wild cards to the playoff pool. Postseason qualification is the same in that eight teams from each conference are included, but it has led to essentially two separate races. Competition for the top three spots in each division is one, with the leftovers jockeying for two wild cards in each conference.
The Minnesota Wild locked up the first one in the West on Tuesday, leaving the Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes to scrap for the last spot. The contenders play on Sunday night to finish the regular season, but the Stars took a two-point lead on the Coyotes into their game on Wednesday against Columbus.
“Ideally, you’d probably like to have it wrapped up,” Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski said. “It’s good to have these intense games where you need to win and get points, and you need to play a certain way because that’s the way the playoffs are going to be. We’ve just got to keep grinding away.”
Detroit and Columbus are in control of the East wild cards. The Red Wings came into their game at Pittsburgh on Wednesday needing only one point to seal their spot, and the Blue Jackets were one point behind them entering their matchup with Dallas.
Despite playing much of the season without several key players, the Red Wings are in position to stretch their playoff streak to 23 straight years. A dry-erase board with team logos and the critical numbers — wins, losses and points — shows the players in their dressing room where the cut lies.
“We’ve done a good job to keep ourselves above the red line,” goalie Jimmy Howard said.
As has been the case for the last 35 years, the Stanley Cup playoff bracket will again include 16 teams. But here’s the twist: The top three teams in each division make up the first 12 teams, with the remaining four spots filled by the next two highest finishers in each conference based on regular-season record regardless of division. It is possible for one division in each conference to send five teams to the playoffs while the other sends just three, which will be the case if Dallas beats out Phoenix.
In the first round, the division winner with the best record in each conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the lesser record. The top wild-card team will play the other division winner. The teams finishing second and third in each division also will meet within the bracket headed by their respective division winners. First-round winners within each bracket play one another in the second round to determine the four participants in the conference finals.
Home-ice advantage through the first two rounds goes to the team that placed higher in the regular-season standings. In the conference finals and Stanley Cup finals, home-ice advantage goes to the team that had the better regular-season record regardless how the teams finished in their respective divisions.
Got all that?
“To be honest with you, I’m not sure I even fully understand it yet, either,” Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson said. “You just have to make the playoffs. It doesn’t matter who you play.”
Though the Wild became the NHL’s first wild-card team, they would have benefited more from the old system. They have a chance to finish with more points than West foe Los Angeles, but since the Kings will be third in the Pacific Division they’re guaranteed one of the top six slots. Right wing Jason Pominville acknowledged earlier this season he was confused why the Wild weren’t listed ahead of the Kings in the standings until the format was fully explained to him.
But the Wild weren’t about to quibble.
“More importantly it’s about getting in, and we like the way we’ve been playing lately,” left wing Zach Parise said.
AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage in Detroit, AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, and AP freelance writer Larry Bump in Dallas contributed to this report.