With Hockey East revamping its playoff format, ‘everything matters now’

 (Tim Brule)
Boston University celebrates its 2018 Hockey East tournament championship (photo: Melissa Wade).

Hockey East has announced its new playoff structure, and I’m here to tell you it’s the right one.

Starting with the 2013-14 season, the league expanded to an extra playoff round leading into the quarterfinals. That expansion coincided with the addition of Notre Dame as its 11th team, and one year later, Connecticut as its 12th. The extra round meant that all teams, even a hypothetical one that went 0-for-the-season, would make the playoffs.

In other words, blame Notre Dame.

I’m just joking on that last point, and will swear it on my stack of Jeff Jackson interview recordings. But I’m against any playoff format in which a league of Hockey East’s size allows everyone in.

Fortunately, that Reign of Bloat is over. Hockey East has decided that the extra round of playoffs can be consigned to the dustbin of history.

To which I say: Good riddance. Sayonara. Don’t let the door hit you too hard in the butt on the way out.

Only eight of the 11 teams will now earn the right to keep their seasons going; three will be left out on the cold.

Too harsh?

Let’s look at the last-place teams during the Reign of Bloat: Merrimack (3-15-2, 2014), Massachusetts (5-15-1, 2-16-4, 2-19-1, 2015-2017), and New Hampshire (5-14-5, 2018).

Can an argument really be made that those teams deserve a playoff berth? I don’t think so. And of the teams immediately ahead of them, the ones also to be eliminated, the best mark (eliminating Notre Dame) in the five years ranged from 4-13-3 to 8-12-4.

Now admittedly, Hockey East is known as a “one-goal league” where the margin between winning and losing most nights is paper thin. And a season can come along like 2009-10 where the difference between third place in the standings and ninth place — which was also the difference between playoff home ice and no playoffs at all — was a microscopic four points (28 vs. 24). I’d still argue that although Hockey East standings can notoriously be tightly packed, the extreme case that year is the exception that proves the rule.

This isn’t Mites, Squirts, and Pee Wees. These are big boys. Coming close doesn’t have to be rewarded. And anyone who was watching Hockey East games in the closing weeks of the 2009-2010 season probably remembers playoff-level intensity arriving several weeks early.

Arguably, the teams with the most to lose are those that will finish ninth, 10th, and 11th, and therefore be on the outside looking in. First-year New Hampshire coach Mike Souza, who has inherited a team that finished last in 2017-2018, points to the paper-thin margins.

“Everything matters now,” he says. “One breakdown in the one-goal type of league we play in can make for the difference between being on the outside and on the inside come the end of the year. It will make for an exciting last few weekends of the regular season, that’s for sure.

“Teams are going to be playing to get in and stay alive. It adds to the fact that our league is incredibly competitive. It’ll be exciting. Every game matters. Every play matters.”

And that’s a very, very good thing. For both fans and players, though maybe not for coaches’ ulcers.

As for those first-round byes, kiss them good-bye. Ironically, many of the “beneficiaries” of those byes weren’t fans of it. Some coaches felt that their team got rusty and lost its edge during the off-week. Providence coach Nate Leaman isn’t one of them.

“I probably was in the minority, but I liked the bye,” he says. “I thought it gave the players a chance to reset and refocus.

“I was in favor of the old format, but we’ll roll with it. You vote as a league on these things. Individually, your opinion doesn’t matter.”

Leaman notes several additional factors that casual fans might miss. First, the unbalanced schedule now takes on a more prominent role. (Teams play 24 Hockey East games, but with 11 teams and therefore 10 opponents, not all schedules will be equal.)

Additionally, the elimination of the extra playoff round does open an extra weekend for scheduling. That is, the regular season extends to March 9 this year instead of March 2. That gives schools greater scheduling flexibility and likely cuts down on mid-week games.

But the biggest factor, according to Leaman, is the one universally agreed to.

“Our league has typically been a one-goal league,” he says. “Everything will be even more amplified now.”

In the immortal words of Fred Flintstone, “Yabba, dabba, doo!”

I’ve released a collection of my funniest stories, Shimmers and Laughs.

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