Everyone can agree that the quest teams undergo for the Stanley Cup in the NHL playoffs is the most grueling of any in professional sports. There are four rounds, each a best-of-seven. Every game is a battle in what can be compared to an all-out war. The level of play and intensity is a marked increase from that of the regular season. It is the most exciting play out of all the sports in the world. Everyone can also agree that by the time the playoffs roll around, almost every player on the sixteen competing teams is suffering from some kind of injury, ailment, or soreness after an 82-game regular season. This is why teams try extra hard to clinch a playoff spot early, to have the luxury of resting star players in-season. It also makes winning an early round series by sweep or in five games all the more important. Rest, at this time of year, is almost more important than caliber of skill.
What would help NHL players when it comes to dealing with all these injuries would be to shorten the first round of the playoffs, to five games. This was the structure the league had for a time in the 1980’s. I do not know how well it worked, or for what reason it ended, but it is safe to say that given the level of play nowadays and the speed at which the game is played, a cutting of just two potential games off the schedule (or more depending how long the series goes) could do wonders for hurting players, especially the stars that the league markets and people pay to see. A best-of-five first round would be a nice intro to the three punishing rounds that are to remain, still at seven games. It would probably make the first round even more exciting and intense than it already is, because it would elevate urgency due to there being one less loss for teams to be knocked out, and also make having home ice advantage even more important.
Normally, I am not a fan of the NHL looking to make changes that are akin to what we see in other sports, but the five-game first round works wonders in Major League Baseball, mainly for pitchers, who are resting up after one or two starts. A potential third start for a star pitcher, if needed, at the end of a first round series with still the league championship and World Series coming up would be detrimental, both to the team and the player’s health. Now imagine that structure in the NHL, with a battered and bruised team winning a first-round series in three games and getting much-needed extra time. It would also allow the other rounds to start sooner, and perhaps the Stanley Cup Final wouldn’t be occurring in the heat of late June. The only similarity I would not want to see is the MLB’s current format where the better team’s home field advantage consists of starting the series with two on the road, and the final three at home. The five-game series in the NHL would start just like it does now: 1-2 home, 3-4 away, 5 home.
But is this practical? Yes and no. I could see the NHLPA pushing for something like this, to protect the health of its players, but team owners would have no choice but to disagree, because those games shaved off result in a decrease in revenue, however slight that may be in the grand scheme of things. Its the same reason which would ultimately prevent the league from adopting a larger ice surface which would no doubt increase excitement in the game because skilled players would have more room to work with. Those extra few feet around the rink would take away rows of seats, and millions of dollars in the long-run of 41 home games in a season.
This is not something being proposed, discussed, or debated by anyone within the league, to my knowledge. It is just an idea I have, one which would protect players and actually make games more exciting. Perhaps this is something that should be discussed. The NHL is one game that is constantly evolving, and since the format was already once-tried, maybe it is in the realm of possibility that we could see such structure again.