You're not supposed to think about playoff matchups in December. You're not supposed to think about them at all, in fact, at least until they're set in stone. If you're a player, you're "looking ahead," which one of hockey's great sins. And if you're a fan, you know not to bother because the hockey gods will take away any matchup they catch you getting too excited about.
And yet it was awfully hard not to start thinking ahead Tuesday night, as the NHL rolled out a busy nine-game schedule. All nine featured at least one team that went into the night holding down a playoff spot, with 11 such teams in action in total. We were facing the possibility of some great matchups, including great rivalries Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues-Chicago Blackhawks and New York Islanders-New York Rangers.
But we have the potential for something even more entertaining: chaos. Maximum chaos. It's going to happen one of these years, and this just might be the one.
When the NHL announced the new format in 2013, it was spun as an upgrade over the old six-division setup, one that would encourage rivalries while also making use of wild cards and a crossover system to ensure the playing field was as level as possible. "We tend to use common sense around here and this seems to make a lot of common sense," Columbus Blue Jackets' president John Davidson said at the time.
Three years later, the system has largely been a success. We've had two years of exciting postseasons, and while the crossover format always causes a bit of confusion, it hasn't resulted in anything that particularly goes against intuition. In the Eastern Conference, both divisions sent four teams to the playoffs in both 2014 and 2015. In the Western Conference, the Central sent five teams both years, meaning first the Dallas Stars and then the Winnipeg Jets had to temporarily become Pacific Division teams, but even that made sense -- it ensured that the conference's best eight teams went to the playoffs. The system works. Common sense, indeed.
But the reality is that the league has been at least a little bit lucky so far. That's because the new format makes it possible for things to get truly weird.
For one, there's the possibility of the dreaded double crossover. While many fans still don't realize it, the current format allows for both wild-card teams in a conference to cross over to the other division. That doesn't sound like it should be possible -- the "common sense" approach would be to leave everyone where they are if four teams from both divisions make the playoffs.
But that's not how it works, and the Eastern Conference could be heading to a double switch. If the playoffs had started Tuesday, the Bruins and New Jersey Devils would have swapped divisions, although the Devils' shootout loss Tuesday night flipped the two teams back into their own divisions as of Wednesday. (Also, if the playoffs started Tuesday, we'd all be furious because the NHL would have skipped two-thirds of the season. Look, I said it was too early.)
But while an Eastern Conference double crossover would offer up some entertainment as fans try to figure out what had happened and why their favorite team is in the wrong division, it pales in comparison to what could happen in the Pacific, where two nightmare scenarios are brewing.
The first and most glaring is the one that would see the sixth-place team in the Central miss the playoffs, despite finishing with a better record than the third-place team in the Pacific. Today, the Jets sit sixth in the Central with 28 points, the same total that the Pacific's third-place Vancouver Canucks have. The Jets have played fewer games, and would easily own the regulation/overtime win tiebreaker because the Canucks are relying on the loser point to mask the fact that they lose almost two-thirds of their games. There's a long way to go, but the Jets are on pace to finish with one of the eight best records in the West but still miss the playoffs, a scenario we haven't seen play out since 1992.
It gets worse. Let's take a moment to talk about the Los Angeles Kings, a red-hot team that's won five straight and has been virtually unbeatable since a shaky 0-3-0 start. Their comeback win over the Blue Jackets Tuesday night left them with a nine-point cushion on top of the Pacific. They're running away with it, and with the division's other six teams treading water or worse, the Kings aren't far from being able to go into cruise control to ride out the season.
But is that a good thing? The team that finishes first in the Pacific will draw one of the wild cards, which will almost certainly come from the Central. Meanwhile, the Pacific's other two playoff teams will face each other. Based on today's standings, the Kings' reward for their division dominance would be a very tough meeting with the Minnesota Wild. Meanwhile, the San Jose Sharks and Canucks would get far easier matchups against each other. The Pacific's third-place finisher would get a better draw than the first place team. Common sense!
Again, it's only December. The post-November standings don't change anywhere near as much as the league would like you to believe, but they do change a little, and they'll look different in April. This isn't a prediction. It's more like a warning. Things might be about to get weird.
If you're a fan of the Jets, or the Kings, or maybe one of those Eastern wild-card teams, that's bad. If you're a fan of confusion, complaining and, most of all, chaos, get ready to enjoy the ride.