Magazine article USA TODAY

Hockey's Revised Roadmap

Magazine article USA TODAY

Hockey's Revised Roadmap

Article excerpt

HOCKEY TEAMS once rode by dogsled for a chance to win the Stanley Cup. Today, the travel may be easier, but the road to the Cup is much tougher. Triumphs in four grueling best-of-seven playoff series are modern time's requirement for acquiring the oldest professional team trophy in North America. And now, with two more expansion teams added to the mix (thus bolstering the number of National Hockey League clubs to 26, up from 21 just three years ago) and new divisional alignments emphasizing conference play, it looks as if Canada's national pastime could become a U.S. winter wonderland--thanks in part, ironically enough, to franchises in American hot weather locales such as California, Florida, and Texas.

The San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Ottawa Senators joined the fraternity over the last two years, and this season showcases entries from Miami (the Panthers), Anaheim (the Mighty Ducks), and Dallas (the Lone Stars, once Minnesota's North Stars). The NHL realized, however, that a modern makeover was needed to pull it all together. So, first-year commissioner Gary Bettman incorporated "something(s) old, something(s) new" into a realignment plan that--other than the boring geographical names given to the four divisions and two conferences--strikes of brilliance.

For history buffs, this is the NHL's 20th playoff format change since the league was founded in 1917. The most enduring system reigned during 1942-67, when the six-team circuit allowed four clubs into the post-season. The first-place franchise faced the third-place finisher, and second met fourth. It wasn't until 1972 that the hockey hierarchy finally figured out that it was more equitable to have first face fourth, and second meet third.

The 1993-94 setup is superbly simple. The league is divided into two conferences (Eastern and Western, replacing the old Prince of Wales and Clarence Campbell conferences), and four divisions (Atlantic and Northeast in the Eastern, replacing the Patrick and Adams divisions; Central and Pacific in the Western, replacing the Norris and Smythe divisions). The four division winners automatically make the playoffs and are seeded one-two in their respective conferences. That leaves 12 post-season berths, six in each conference. Not counting the division champs, the six teams with the best record in each conference qualify.

It still takes four straight series victories (each best-of-seven) to capture the Cup. Conference champions still advance to the finals. Winning percentage and geography still are major guideposts to determine who plays whom, and when. However, instead of having to emerge from the division to reach the Final Four, teams will have conference-based-instead of division-oriented--schedules in both the regular and post-season.

Under the old system, the top four teams in the four divisions advanced to the playoffs. …

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