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More Divisional Play Please

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks
Hey, I’m always up for a Canucks-Calgary game – with this lull in the schedule, I’d take any game right now, just drop the puck-- and I kind of like this run of eight straight divisional contests the Canucks find themselves in (they’ll like it too, if they can build on their 4-0 mark in the Northwest so far this season). But for all the work the National Hockey League has done to foster divisional rivalries in recent years, the numbers just don’t add up.

With teams squaring off against divisional foes 32 times (four divisional opponents eight times each), every NHL club plays 39% of its schedule within its own division. The idea, of course, is to capture the attention of hockey fans everywhere by pitting neighbouring franchises against each other to get the teams and the cities fired up for all of these games. In theory, that should be the case.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight.

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But, ask anyone in hockey where true rivalries are born, and the answer is always the same – the playoffs. And that’s where logic and math collide. After a season of butting heads against the Flames, Avalanche, Wild and Oilers, the Canucks very likely won’t see any of those teams when the playoffs roll around (and that’s just to use the Northwest Division as an example).

Of the 15 series played to determine the Stanley Cup champion last season, only one – the Eastern Conference Final between Ottawa and Buffalo – involved two teams from the same division. So after spending 39% of the regular season schedule developing rivalries, when it came time for the playoff payoff only one of 15 series (6.7%) involved teams who had competed regularly throughout the 82 game schedule.

  And to take that a step further, in the two playoff years since the lockout, only three of 30 series (10%) have involved divisional rivals (the Senators and Sabres also met in the 2006 Eastern Conference Semi-Final and the Rangers and Devils battled in the opening round that same year).

You have to go back to the Canucks and Flames and their overtime in the seventh game of the opening round of the 2004 NHL playoffs to find the last time two Western Conference divisional rivals competed in the post-season. And it’s interesting to note that four of the eight opening round series that year involved teams from the same division, and three of those four series went the distance (Calgary beat Vancouver in seven, Ottawa edged Toronto in seven and Montreal outlasted Boston in seven).

 It’s coming up on four years since the Canucks and Flames met in that terrific series in the spring of ’04. It’s approaching five years since the Canucks’ one and only meeting with Minnesota in the playoffs. It’s closing in on seven years since the Canucks last faced Colorado in the post-season. And 2008 will mark 16 years since Vancouver and Edmonton faced-off in a playoff series. And if you think that’s too long, consider for a moment that the Canucks have faced both the Oilers and the Flames more recently than those two have waged a post-season Battle of Alberta. Amazingly one of the greatest rivalries off all-time has been without a playoff installment since 1991.

Now, the NHL can’t control which teams face off in the post-season – that’s up to the teams themselves and the luck of the draw. But it’s unfortunate in the current system with all that’s built during the regular season, that the rivalries haven’t carried over when the real fun begins.

That’s why the league should either consider going back to the way it used to be when the first round of the playoffs matched divisional opponents (impossible under the current format of three divisions in each conference) or relax the amount of divisional play, something the league governors are said to be seriously considering for next season.

In the meantime, though, the Canucks will get their fill of the Flames, Avs, Wild and Oilers – and fans should be treated to some great games. And if you think this stretch of the season is crucial for the Canucks, just wait until March and April when they finish the schedule with nine straight divisional affairs.

And we can only hope those games set the stage for a bunch more to follow when the playoffs finally get here.
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