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Playoffs are WILD this year: Looking at the Expanded Playoffs and Wild Card Round


bigAL
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In this first season after expansion, the league needed to be creative when it came to scheduling. The traditional playoff format wasn’t going to cut it with 16 teams. Eight teams can make a great tournament, sure, but if the regular season is expanding, the playoffs should be expanded too.


So: what’s the change? This year, the VHL adopted a “Wild Card Round”. Like professional baseball, the VHL replaced one playoff spot in each conference with two teams that can fight each other to earn that berth. Understanding that playoffs are *hard* on the body, the Wild Card Round will only be a best-of-five series instead of the big, intense first-to-four series we are used to.


This “play-in” is popular with the league head offices for a variety of reasons. First, management, players, and fans all know that playoff hockey is the best kind of hockey. Nothing matches the intensity of playoffs; the blood, sweat, and tears poured into the march to the Continental Cup; the adversity teams face with injuries, fatigue, and the stress of playing a season after the season; and knowing that winning is immortal because flags fly forever. Expanding the playoffs allow for this awesome experience to go longer, with more teams and fanbases involved.


Second, the Wild Card Round keeps more teams in the playoff race longer. Let’s look at the S73 regular season standings to show why adding the extra playoff berth makes the end of the regular season so much more exciting.

 

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Fig. 1: The North American standings at the end of S73


In the North American conference, we have the #4 seed Vancouver Wolves taking on the #5 seed D.C. Dragons. The D.C. G.M. E.N.O. kept team morale high even as the Wolves ran away with the “final” (according to the index) playoff spot. D.C. finished with 76 points and 30 regulation or overtime wins. Hot on their heels were the Toronto Legion, with their 74 points but 31 ROW wins. With one more win, the Legion would be tied with D.C. while holding the ROW tie-breaker, and the Dragon’s fire breath would be extinguished for yet another season.

Under the old playoff format, the Dragons would have been eliminated ages ago. The eight point gap between D.C. and Vancouver would have been unsurmountable in the final weeks of the season. Offseason plans would start to formulate. Underperforming players would be shaking in their booties. Instead, we got a down-to-the-wire, photo-finish, playoff race between two rival capital cities.

 

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Fig. 2: The European standings at the end of S73


Way out there in Europe, the conclusion of the regular season was even more wild. The Euro conference had three clear tiers: The Super-teams at the top, like Helstinki, Calgary, and New York; the struggling expansion teams in Warsaw and London; and the playoff bubble teams. Under the new expanded playoffs, everyone knew that only two of Malmo, Davos, and Prague will make the Wild Card Round, and one pouty loser will be golfing sooner than planned. The last weeks of the season in the Euro division were spent with some serious scoreboard-watching by players on those three teams. When the season ended and the standings had solidified, there was only one point separating the “in” teams and the “out” team. The Prague Phantoms were ghosted by the playoffs.


I, for one, welcome our new expanded playoff format. I think playoffs are the gift that keeps on giving, and the more people that experience that, the better. It’s a sweet, sweet coincidence that my team was the one that directly benefited the most from the expanded playoffs, but I’m sure my opinion would be the same whether I was the #1 seed or the #8.

 

That being said, I don’t expect playoffs to expand ever again. The regular season still has to mean something. Mediocre management can’t be rewarded with extra games every year.
But, just for this year, I’m going to enjoy my playoffs – even if it only lasts for up to five games.

 

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