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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Playoff series going distance


From Friday's Globe and Mail
Thursday, June 5, 2003

East Rutherford, N.J. — The travel involved in the Stanley Cup final has revived the argument about the scheduling format for the NHL playoffs.

Unlike the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, which use the 2-3-2 format for playoff games, the National Hockey League has stuck to 2-2-1-1-1 for the final, except for some experimentation in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

But with the day-long travel involved in the Cup final between the New Jersey Devils and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the wisdom of the traditional format is being questioned.

After Game 5 last night, both teams will spend all of today travelling back to Anaheim for Game 6 tomorrow night. Because of scheduling problems, such as television and arena availability (ABC is carrying both the NHL and NBA finals), the only time there were two off-days for the teams was between Games 4 and 5.

That means three coast-to-coast commutes within five days, if the final goes seven games. With two teams playing an already plodding style of hockey, the travel demands do nothing to liven up the series.

Nevertheless, the head coaches involved in this year's final have no complaints with the 2-2-1-1-1 setup.

Then again, Devils' head coach Pat Burns has personal experience with the NHL's last experimentation with the 2-3-2 format. He was head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1994-95 season when they played two consecutive 2-3-2 playoff series against West Coast teams.

In both cases, the Leafs had home-ice advantage but split the first two games, which left the visiting teams with the home advantage when the series changed cities. The Leafs managed to get past the San Jose Sharks in the first series, coming within a Johann Garpenlov shot off the crossbar of losing, and then were eliminated by the Canucks in Vancouver in the fifth game of the Western Conference final.

"I didn't like [the 2-3-2]," Burns said yesterday. "It's really scary. The two times I was involved with them, I didn't like them. We squeaked through San Jose one time, but we lost to Vancouver in '94."

Burns admitted the traditional setup is "tough. It's tiring." On the other hand, he said, "as it goes, it becomes even. They've travelled, we've travelled. It shouldn't be an excuse now."

The travel advantage has been conceded to the Ducks. They are accustomed to long, cross-country trips while the Devils have three opponents within driving distance (New York Rangers and Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers) and short hops for many other games.

Also, the Ducks came into the final with an 11-day rest, which hurt them in the first two games because of rust but is now an advantage deeper in the series.

"I like it the way it is now," Ducks head coach Mike Babcock said. "I think the travel is great. I think the key to the final is you get stretched out and you find out about desire and will.

"The teams that play the fewest games because they won the quickest should have the advantage. [That] didn't help us at all early [in the series]. Now it should be an advantage to us."

Actually, the 2-3-2 format is still an official option for NHL teams. But only for the first three rounds. The Cup final has to be played in the 2-2-1-1-1 format, according to NHL bylaws.

The bylaw says the team with the better record, and home-ice advantage, has the option in the first three playoff rounds of going with the 2-3-2. But to the best of anyone's recollection, the Leafs-Canucks conference final was the last time anyone elected to do so.

There are probably two major reasons for this, according to NHL insiders. The first is that any team that splits the first two games at home not only surrenders the home-ice advantage, it gives the opponent the chance to close out the series on home ice with three consecutive games.

Second, if a series does end in that manner in four or five games, the team with the home advantage will have had only two playoff gates compared to as many as three for the other team. That's not something a general manager wants to explain to the team owner.

The first round of experimentation with the 2-3-2 ended in the mid-1980s when the Edmonton Oilers were rounding into form as a dynasty. They knocked off the Islanders and Flyers, respectively, in the 1984 and 1985 Cup finals by splitting the first two games in New York and Philadelphia and then sweeping them at home. That scared off the rest of the league from the format.

The second round of experimentation in the mid-1990s, which involved earlier rounds, ended in similar fashion when a few too many teams went the way of the Leafs. ROBTv Workopolis