I can't remember a year where finishing first has been this important. I've always been a guy that thought how you finish was more important than where you finish as long as it's in the top eight, but this year in both conferences it's just paramount that you finish first.
In the Eastern Conference, whether it's the Penguins or the Rangers, if they don't finish first they get Philly, which arguably, if Ilya Bryzgalov continues to play like this, is as good as Pittsburgh or New York. It's the same thing in the West. Whoever finishes second in the Central is going to get Nashville, Chicago or Detroit in the first round. I've never seen a year where finishing first and avoiding a tough first-round matchup has been this important, and that's going to affect how coaches think and how they coach down the stretch.
If you finish first in the East, you're going to get Buffalo, Washington, Winnipeg, maybe Florida, but definitely one of those teams. That's no comparison to Philadelphia. Those teams can beat you, but if I'm going to take my chances, I'm going to take my chances with Buffalo or one of the teams in the Southeast. I'm not going to take my chances with Philadelphia. If you look in the West, you could get Phoenix, Dallas, Colorado, maybe L.A. Any of those teams are a much better matchup than Chicago, Detroit or Nashville.
This might be a year where the first-place team is going to have to play right to the end, and that changes things because when you clinch and find out where you're going to be, that's when you can rest guys or rest your goalie or do some experimenting with young guys in your lineup. For two weeks, you can really manage your team to determine what matchups and lines might help you in the playoffs that you didn't know about before. I think all of that goes out the window this year. Those teams are going to have to battle for first overall because in both conferences the matchups are too important.
The really interesting thing is you might see teams in the middle of the playoff field also trying to avoid tough first-round matchups by not being so upset if they end up dropping to the sixth seed so they can face the weakest division winner. In the East, facing the winner of the Southeast is different from facing Philadelphia, while in the West, facing the winner of the Pacific is different than facing Detroit or Nashville. Are we going to see teams start to not worry about dropping? Will they start resting players so they can finish sixth?
I think most times, certainly home ice is important, but I'm not really a big believer in home ice in hockey because I've seen the visiting team win a first-round series too many times. Our athletes don't have problems winning on the road, and I don't think home ice is the be all and end all. I truly believe it's more important that your team is playing well heading into the postseason, and considering how strong the middle of each conference is, I would rather finish sixth than fifth this year. If you get the coaches and they can be honest and you look at the scheduling and who you would play, I would think they would much rather finish sixth in that sleeper position and open on the road against a weaker team than have home ice in the 4-5 matchup.
Ultimately though, getting that first seed in both conferences is going to be huge this season. Staying away from Philadelphia will be crucial. That's why I don't see Pittsburgh or the Rangers resting anybody, worrying about ice time or any of those things as the season goes down to the wire. You just don't want to face Philly in the first round. The Flyers have been playing great lately, Bryzgalov is playing his best hockey of the season right now, Briere is starting to score and the young guys are starting to get healthy.
It's going to be very interesting to watch how teams play this out, and don't forget, the Rangers and Penguins play in the second to last game of the season in Pittsburgh on April 5. That game could very easily be for first in the East, and it could be a major factor in who goes deep once the playoffs start.