Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

Hey look! A playoff format that almost makes sense

It’s win or go home time for several NHL teams in the playoffs, and the Portland Winterhawks are playing in the WHL’s Western Conference finals for the first time since 2001. To emerge victorious, the Winterhawks must run the gauntlet that is the Spokane Chiefs, who were one point behind the Winterhawks in the final regular season standings. But Spokane won the regular season series against Portland by 11 points to 8. Last year, Portland eliminated the Chiefs from the playoffs in a Game 7 OT winner. This past February, Portland scored five goals against Spokane in 1:59. Experts, journalists, fans and bloggers are all predicting a nail biting, blood pressure raising, popcorn flinging, beer spilling, multiple penalty taking, game winning goal in the final minutes of OT thriller. As the chance for the Winterhawks to advance to the Memorial Cup draws closer, this would be a good time to see how the playoff formats for the other junior leagues work. May the best teams make it to the finals. Just don’t try to understand how they got there.

It all starts out so normally: The OHL playoff format looks deceptively simple. Eight teams in each Conference qualify for the playoffs, with the division leaders ranked one-two in each Conference. They then plan in a similar order to the WHL: first seed plays the eighth seed, second plays the seventh and so forth. Teams are re-seeded after each round and the division winners are ranked one-two within the conference as long as they progress. Until it gets to this part:

What a difference a day makes: Per the OHL’s web site: The first round series must be completed within 13 days; the second round series also have 13 days to finish while the Conference Championships are 14 days in length. The OHL Championship Series is also 14 days in length.

What a difference being French makes: The QMJHL playoff format is the easiest one hands down. Sort of. Beginning with the fourth position, teams are ranked according the points they have accumulated during the regular season. Said playoff standings determine the opponents for each series as well as the team that will have home ice advantage. They then proceed with the first playing 16th seed, 2nd playing 15th and so forth. The semi-finals proceed in a similar fashion, pairing off the number one seed against number four and number two against number three. The final is played between the last two teams standing. Seems simple enough, except for that pesky little thing called a tie breaker.

It’s good to have backup: According to Rule 4.13 in their rulebook, this is how the QMJHL determines a tie-breaker in the standings:

a) The team having the most wins at the end of the regular season shall be awarded the highest rank between the tied teams;
b) should there still be a tie after this procedure the team with the highest difference between the total of goals for and goals against at the end of the regular season shall be awarded the highest rank among the tied teams;
c) should there still be a tie, the team with the most goals at the end of the regular season will rank at the highest position among the tied teams;
d) should there still be a tie, then the procedure set in paragraph a), b) and c) should be repeated in that order, strictly considering the regular season games played on the road;
e) should there still be a tie, a drawing will determine which team will be ranked at the highest position; but, if this exercise would result in a team being eliminated from playoff contention, then a deciding game will be played between the two teams involved and a drawing will decide which team will host.

Deceptively simple: In 1983, the CHL introduced a new format for the Memorial Cup in which the host city would get an automatic berth in the final. Originally designed to boost attendance, the format remains in place today. The first city to host under this new format was Portland. That year, the Winterhawks went on to become the first American team to win the Cup. This year the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors will host the final and get that coveted spot in the final. But they could contend for it even if they weren’t hosting. They finished the season at the top of their division and conference in the OHL, and they are currently playing in the Eastern Conference finals against the Niagara Ice Dogs. The Majors are leading the series 2- 1.

Trivial Tidbits for playoff party small talk: Nearly all the NHL playing in or eliminated from the playoffs boast a Winterhawk on their current or future roster: 

New York Rangers: Brandon Dubinsky played for the Winterhawks from 2002 - 2006.

Buffalo Sabres: Paul Gaustad played for the Winterhawks and current Winterhawk forward Riley Boychuk was drafted by Buffalo 208th overall in the 2010 Entry Draft.

Philadelphia Flyers: Braydon Coburn won the Jim Piggott Rookie of the Year Award in 2001- 2002, his rookie season with the Winterhawks.

Vancouver Canucks: Stefan Schneider was never drafted in the Bantam or NHL Drafts and came to the Winterhawks after playing for the Vancouver Giants. He signed with the Canucks last spring and is now playing for their AHL Team, the Manitoba Moose. Last fall, Winterhawks forward Tayler Jordan was invited to the Canucks training camp, where he played on a line with Stefan. Tayler, Stefan and Riley used to play on a checking line that Winterhawks play-by-play broadcaster Andy Kemper called “the minimum height requirement line.” All of them are 6’4” or taller. And all went undrafted in their draft eligible years.

Chicago Blackhawks: Marian Hossa played on the Winterhawks’ 1998 Memorial Cup Championship team. The team drafted Winterhawks goalie Mac Carruth 191st overall in the 2010 Entry Draft.

Boston Bruins: Cam Neely was a rookie when he helped lead the Winterhawks to their first-ever Memorial Cup in 1983. Current Winterhawks center Craig Cunningham was acquired late last year in a blockbuster trade that sent Calgary Flames prospect Spencer Bennett (now with the Abbotsford Heat on an amateur tryout contract) and Teal Burns to the Vancouver Giants. Craig already won a Memorial Cup in his rookie season with the Giants and he was drafted 97th overall by the Bruins in the 2010 Entry Draft.

Nashville Predators: After being drafted 78th overall in the 2010 Entry Draft, defenseman Taylor Aronson recently signed with the team.

San Jose Sharks: William Wrenn recently left colleage in Colorado to sign with the Portland Winterhawks. He has already made an impact with the team, sharing the award for Defenseman of the Year with Taylor Aronson. William was drafted 43rd overall by the Sharks in the 2009 Entry Draft.

Anaheim: Luca Sbisa played with the Winterhawks for a short time last year as part of a roundabout trip back to the NHL. He was originally drafted by the Flyers, got traded to Anaheim as part of the Chris Pronger deal and thanks to a goofy NHL rule, was returned to his WHL team (Lethbridge Hurricanes) for the remainder of the 2009 - 2010 season. He was then traded to Portland to help the Winterhawks make a push to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Phoenix Coyotes: Jason LaBarbera played for the Winterhawks and was also on the 1998 Memorial Cup championship team.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Winterhawks center Taylor Peters was invited to the Pens’ training camp last fall.

Parting shots: I am proof that you don’t need to know or even understand all the rules and ins and outs of hockey. For me, that’s what keeps it interesting. There’s always something new to learn. Like life, we should go to every day ready to learn and to grow. Life is too short not to. If you already know everything there is to know about hockey, then I tip my hat to you. You’re smarter and better at this than I’ll ever be. But I do know this: the day we stop learning and being amazed by this game and who plays it is the day we stop living fully. Even if you do know every little thing there is to know, there is still much to be amazed by: the Boston Bruins’ three shorthanded goals in one 2-minute penalty kill; Sidney Crosby’s Olympic Gold Medal game winning goal, the Portland Winterhawks’ five goals against Spokane in 1:59. Pick your game, pick your team, pick your player. Even if you don’t understand it, there’s always magic to be found somewhere in hockey.

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torless's avatar

go ‘Hawks! Had the chance to go to Sunday’s game but couldn’t… lousy Easter… sounds like it was a good game.

Posted by torless on 04/25/11 at 06:26 PM ET

GZ Expat's avatar

Uhhh…Jannik Hansen - Vancouver Canucks??

Posted by GZ Expat on 04/25/11 at 09:37 PM ET


A few you missed:

Boston - Andy Ference (played on 98 Cup team)
Nashville - Brent Peterson, Associate Head Coach (played in Portland and also coached the 98 Cup team)
Vancouver - Jannik Hansen
San Jose - Scott Nichol (played in Portland)
New York Rangers - Michael Sauer (played in Portland)


Posted by Andy Kemper from Portland, OR on 04/26/11 at 03:27 PM ET


How could I forget Ference and Hansen? Oy! Thanks for filling in the blanks I missed. As you can see, I’m still learning about the sport and how to keep track of it. I appreciate anyone who takes the time to stop here and leave comments and feedback. It helps me get smarter and better with each entry. Even though I missed a few spots, I hope for the most part you have enjoyed what you’ve read here. Thanks for tuning in.

Posted by Samantha from Portland, Oregon on 04/27/11 at 02:03 AM ET

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com