Is the new NHL like new Coke?

By Ryan Pike

Now that the dust has settled, the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs are likely to go down in history as the most boring and anticlimactic of the past decade. When compared to the two previous playoffs, the differences easily point out the flaws emerging in the new NHL.

First and foremost, the financial parity put in place by the 2004/05 lockout has resulted in a remarkable competitive shift in the NHL. Gone is the traditional notion of the higher-seeded playoff teams being unstoppable powerhouses. In the new NHL, everyone is a powerhouse, with seeding seemingly now determined by scheduling and divisional rivalries. The Eastern playoff teams finished the regular season separated by 11 points and the seven top Western teams were separated by 9–excluding Calgary, 8 points behind seventh-ranked Minnesota.

The elimination of the traditional powerhouse/underdog dichotomy has two results: the renewed importance of home-ice advantage and the elimination of really long or really short series. The higher-seed team, blessed with home-ice advantage, won 10 of the 15 playoff match-ups in 2007. Only one series (the Rangers’ disposal of Atlanta) finished in the minimum four games, only one series (the Canucks outlasting Dallas) went the maximum seven games and teams facing elimination survived three times in 18 chances (two of which were in the Dallas/Vancouver series).

That being said, the playoffs were not entirely devoid of dramatics. The opening-round series between Dallas and Vancouver featured six periods of overtime and a seven-game goaltending duel between Roberto Luongo and Marty Turco. The Pittsburgh/Ottawa series also featured drama and NHL poster-boy Sidney Crosby, but showcased the flaw in this year’s season. Every team that won did so as expected and the most entertaining hockey was played in the first round. As a result, the later rounds featured match-ups fans had already seen before, won without much contest in five or six games by the higher-seeded team.

The Stanley Cup Final faced the same challenge as the rest of the playoffs: it was something familiar presented in a way that made it less compelling. Instead of a seven-game nail-biter between an underdog western Canadian team and a team of rising stars from the southeastern United States, it was a five-game affair featuring Ottawa returning to the finals for the first time since the 1920s and the Anaheim Ducks returning to the finals after a 4-year hiatus. Both teams were Cup contenders last year, and the addition of Chris Pronger pushed Anaheim over the top, much to the chagrin of Oiler fans.

After two seasons of the new NHL, fans may finally be seeing the results of the transformation. Only time will tell whether this year’s rather drab playoff year is now the norm, or merely an aberration. Regardless, the first large-scale upheaval of the rules since the 1970s has increased scoring, but at the cost of turning what used to be the most exciting time of the year into a bore.

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