Most sports fans realize that the playoffs aren’t indisputably fair, because they don’t always deliver what they implicitly promise – the best team in the league. The NFL plays a one-game-elimination format, Major League Baseball holds a best-of-five first round then two best-of-sevens to declare a winner. The NBA and NHL offer perhaps the most likely format for declaring a champion who is actually representative of the regular season, as each of their rounds are seven games.
But still, a hot hand or two can carry a team – any team, in any sport – much further in the playoffs than it ever could in the regular season.
What does this have to do with ECAC Hockey? If you have to ask, you haven’t been paying attention.
Weight for it
The ECAC, like the other college hockey leagues, orchestrates its postseason tournament with best-of-three early rounds (in our case, first and second), and single-game elimination in the semifinals and championship. This has always seemed backwards to me – as I would imagine early-round matchups would be more disparate than late ones – so why would you want two mis-matched teams playing two or three games, but two very evenly matched sides only playing once?
Eyes on the prize
Then there’s the Great Incentive, the NCAA bid that awaits each league’s tournament champion. Again, it seems backward to me: Why reward a three-week winner instead of a five-month champ?
There is no NCAA tourney berth awaiting winners of the Great Lakes Invitational, Beanpot, or IceBreaker, so why should league tournaments be any different? They can’t guarantee a high-quality team; just a temporarily hot one (and who knows how long that will last?).
The more the scarier
Finally, there’s the matter of this all-in business. All 12 ECAC (and WCHA, and CCHA, and AHA) teams get a shot at that NCAA berth once the regular season ends, no matter what kind of season they had. The argument that it is a league tournament – therefore that all teams should be eligible – only flies until you consider the prize.
If you look at it one way, only three teams were eliminated from NCAA contention at the end of the regular season this year: the bottom two in Hockey East’s 10-team league (Providence and UMass-Lowell) and independent Alabama-Huntsville. That is simply ridiculous.
Because of this format, it’s very easy for a very good team to get knocked off by a worse one by simple bad luck or poor timing. Let’s face it, nobody brings 100 percent every single shift… the best teams just do it more often with better talent over the course of the season.
Would you want Michigan Tech, Sacred Heart or Bowling Green taking the place of New Hampshire, Notre Dame or Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA’s this year? MTU, SHU and BGSU fans aside, of course not… but it could happen!
Wrapping it up
So is there a better solution to the current system? Maybe, maybe not.
Stretching each playoff series to seven games is out. As preferable as it may be, it’s totally unreasonable as far as logistics and academics are concerned.
Cutting down the number of teams in contention for league tournament titles and the NCAA bids that go with them would be a good start, and may – in some cases – save the leagues/schools money, depending on the circumstances. It could also conceivably allow for longer playoff series, since the number of rounds would be reduced.
Finally, what if the NCAA started actually rewarding teams for regular-season success, instead of reducing it to a stepping stone? Give each regular-season champion an NCAA berth, then give each league tourney champ a berth. If a team repeats, great – its second auto-bid becomes an at-large.
I’m not trying to start a revolution here; I’m just thinking out loud.