BUFFALO, N.Y. — With the regular season winding down, this is a good time to give a bit of a primer on how the playoff system will work this year.
After the league changed the divisional alignment before the season, going to a two-division per conference format instead of the three-division alignment, the playoff format changed as well. There has been plenty of confusion based on conversations I’ve had during the past few weeks as the Lightning have closed in on their first playoff spot since 2010-11.
So I’ll do my best to simplify the format as much as I can so nobody starts to consider a possible Tampa Bay first-round matchup against Marty St. Louis and the New York Rangers or Vinny Lecavalier and the Philadelphia Flyers.
I’ll start with the Atlantic Division as the basis for how the setup is this postseason.
Boston has clinched the Atlantic Division title and will be the No. 1 seed in the division, and barring a complete collapse in the final two weeks, the Bruins will be the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay and Montreal are all but locked into the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds; it’s now about determining which team finishes in which slot. Those are the three automatic playoff spots within the division, and under the new format the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in each division will play each other, so that means the Lightning are virtually locked into a first-round matchup with the Canadiens.
In the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins have all but locked up the division title and likely will hold the second seed in the Eastern Conference, while the Rangers and Flyers are close to locked into an opening-round meeting, which would give the Metropolitan its three automatic playoff spots.
Here’s where it can get confusing, as the wild-card teams get involved. There are two wild-card spots available, and whichever team finishes as the top wild-card team regardless of division will play the No. 2 division winner, in this case Pittsburgh, and play in the Metro Division. That means the winner of Pittsburgh and the top-seeded wild-card team would play the winner of the Rangers-Flyers for a berth in the Eastern Conference finals.
In the Atlantic Division bracket, Boston will face the second-seeded wild-card team, and the winner of that series faces the winner of Montreal-Tampa Bay, also for the chance to play in the Eastern Conference finals.
There is no re-seeding of teams after the first round as in previous years, so in theory that means Columbus — a Metropolitan team — could play in the Atlantic Division bracket and would remain with those teams until the conference finals.
Something struck me this week regarding some off-the-ice situations that go unnoticed most of the time.
Teams want players to be at their best, and part of that comes with feeling good, and sometimes it can come from just a smile from a familiar face in the building. Whether that’s having the same person prepare omelets at a cooking station inside the players’ lounge or seeing a specially prepared cake on their birthday, it brings out a positive vibe.
Such as when Ben Bishop sent out a picture via his personal Twitter account of the birthday cake the Forum’s catering department made for his birthday, or the one made for Steven Stamkos in February when he turned 24.
It’s something many not directly involved with the team can appreciate or understand.
There are millions of dollars invested into players to have success on the ice, and if helping in that success means seeing the same trusted people around the locker room — or sometimes in the locker room — it helps put players in a positive frame of mind.
And as the old saying goes, a happy employee is a productive employee.
After a change at the top of the catering department at the Forum this week — which is run by a contracted company and not the team — it will be interesting to see if that sort of vibe that had been created during the past few years will continue.