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Colageo: Boston Bruins Won’t See More of Montreal

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SUNRISE, Fla. – The Boston Bruins visited the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 11, 2023, then hosted the Habs a week later. The two teams did not face each other again for two months (Jan. 20), meeting once more almost two more months later (March 14).

And fans wonder what happened to rivalries.

Over the course of a 2023-24 National Hockey League schedule that hasn’t been so balanced since the 1980-81 season, the Boston Bruins faced five of their seven Atlantic Division rivals twice home and twice away and the other two (Buffalo and Ottawa) only three times each.

Subtract 26 divisional games from the 82-game schedule, and that leaves 56 games to spread about the league’s other 24 opponents. The Bruins played their eight Metropolitan Division opponents three times each (same as the Sabres and the Senators) – subtract 24 from 56 – and that leaves 32 games for the Western Conference (one home and one away).

Ergo, Connor McDavid (potentially) appears in every NHL city.

This is obviously a far cry from the 1981-82 to 1992-93 era in which a 21-team NHL was scheduled for eight (sometimes nine) games against four divisional rivals permeated by an abiding hatred that constantly simmered and often came to a boil.

By the time Ray Bourque’s and Wayne Gretzky’s 20th century careers were winding down, the NHL was approaching 30 teams but had yet to fully transition to a schedule that would bring every superstar to all NHL cities.

Late in Saturday’s pre-series presser with Commissioner Gary Bettman and right-hand man Bill Daly, Boston Hockey Now got the mic, shared recent “not scientific” (my words) feedback from interested fans who miss their divisional rivalries and have said they would gladly give up a night with McDavid (and any other Western Conference superstar) to rekindle their 20th-century NHL.

For Boston Bruins ramifications where it concerns Bettman’s announcement of an $88 million salary cap for the 2024-25 season, see Andrew Fantucchio’s latest.

Accurately categorizing my fan feedback as “anecdotal” (his word), Bettman offered that the NHL’s fan surveys have yielded a contrary opinion. Daly chimed in and noted that club executives around the league also support the current balance in the regular-season schedule and the promise of hockey’s biggest names in their arenas.

Perhaps so, but the suspicion here is that mayhem management is the NHL’s uncompromising priority. While fighting remains part of the game, albeit it only under circumstances the NHL feels it can effectively contain (staged fights are ironically allowed, while organic hockey fights are invariably broken up), Bettman’s NHL will give no breath to the bloody violence of 1980s-style rivalries. Canadiens-Nordiques (1984), Bruins-North Stars (1981), Canadiens-Flyers (1987), it’s all on YouTube.

The NHL’s lack of interest in this discourse is not surprising. Bettman was proud to announce peaks in attendance, television ratings and breakthrough platforming partnerships, and, as usual, isn’t the least bit concerned about Joe Clicker who loyally pays his NESN bill, has cable with ESPN and TNT, and still can’t get every Bruins game.

I digress.

The NHL’s resolution to let regular-season rivalries die leaves an unsolved question, and that’s the unfairness of the playoff format.

This was Part 2 of my question.

Under the current playoff format, a team must win its way out of its division to compete for its conference title, and for some that means a much rockier road to the Stanley Cup Final.

This was also the case in the ’80s NHL, but the division-centric schedule of that era justified the playoff format. The current format does not fit the current regular-season schedule, in which division-centric playoff seedings are established against a more conference-based competition.

How that’s fair to a division with three legitimate Cup contenders is beyond me.

While I’m sure the league would be happy to point out to a Boston-based writer that the 2023-24 Eastern Conference playoff pairings would have turned out exactly the same under a 1-versus-8, 2-7, 3-6 and 4-5 conference-based seeding, Winnipeg would not have played Colorado in the opening round in a reseeded Western Conference bracket. The Jets would have hosted the Kings, and Colorado would have gotten Edmonton.

In a fair format, would the Oilers, who opened against L.A., even be here had they had to go through the Avalanche?

Remember, the teams’ 2023-24 records were established against common, conference-based competition, so it makes no sense that the Avs and the Jets were forced to cancel one another out. In a playoff bracket that would have fairly reflected the season schedule, these two teams would not have been allowed to face each other in the opening round.

Bettman’s answer: To win the Stanley Cup, a team has to beat the best in the league. But that argument only holds water if one defines “best” according to which teams made the Cup final. That’s some good litigation but a poor argument.

I wish I had thought to ask the commish, “Doesn’t a division-centric playoff format undermine the regular-season relevance that the NHL worked so hard for so many years to establish?” It’s a relief that the NHL has not adopted the NBA’s play-in round, but withholding the rewards of hard-earned playoff seeds similarly attacks the integrity of the regular season.

Canadian reporter Pierre LeBrun took the opportunity of this Q&A to propose to Bettman/Daly a conference-centric playoff, seeding teams 1-8 east and west. This, as we argued above, would justly match the playoff format with the regular-season schedule.

Unfortunately, the nays have it.

If you read this column, you knew in October that we had the Panthers wearing the ball caps. After the Oilers failed to solve Sergei Bobrovsky in Game 1, Edmonton coach Kris Knoblauch said there is more his team can do to finish. Solving Bobrovsky is a necessity for Edmonton but an equally dangerous preoccupation.

With two very cerebral coaches, this Cup final has enormous strategic potential. And with arguably five of the six best players in the series career centermen, what happens between them will go a long way in deciding which team wears the ball caps.

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