New playoff format takes season to wire


April 05, 1994|By SANDRA McKEE

The NHL went looking for some variety in playoff matchups last spring when it threw out the historic division and conference names, realigned the teams and installed a new playoff system. Teams now qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs by their conference standing instead of through divisional races.

On one hand, it has worked well, keeping games meaningful down to the last week of the season.

On the other, a look at the conference standings may make some people wonder if anything in the NHL really changes.

L Five of the "Original Six" franchises are back on top again.

Detroit and Toronto are fighting it out for the Western Conference lead. In the Eastern Conference, the New York Rangers are tops, and the Montreal Canadians and Boston Bruins are in the top 5. The last of the six, Chicago, has also clinched a playoff spot in the West.

Together, their winning percentage is .591.

And in the Eastern Conference, if the playoffs started tomorrow, several matchups look eerily familiar. For instance, Boston, now competing in the Northeast Division, would be facing its longtime Adams Division rival, Montreal, and Washington would be taking a trip to Pittsburgh, to meet its old Patrick Division nemesis, the Penguins.

Ratings -- what ratings?

ABC is in the middle of a six-week package of NHL games on Sunday afternoons. It runs into the conference semifinals May 1. The Neilsen ratings for the first week of the telecast, March 27, are in. The hockey games earned a 1.6 rating, 24th among sports events behind everything from World Figure Skating (No. 1 at 12.4), NCAA basketball, NCAA Division II basketball, bowling and golf.

Hockey fans in Baltimore won't be given a chance to improve these ratings: Channel 13 won't be carrying any of the games. Channel 7 in Washington has been broadcasting the games.

They call it family

Joe Juneau had been a member of the Capitals for less than a week when rookie Pat Peake, just back from rib injuries, was criticized for not capitalizing on his chances in a 2-2 tie with the New York Islanders.

Before Peake could respond to a question about his shooting, Juneau, sitting at the locker next to his linemate, broke in.

"I've missed games with injury this season," Juneau said. "It isn't easy coming back. Being out, you lose your timing. But Pat was right there for the shots. It'll come."

Peake, standing at his locker listening, waited until Juneau finished. As he turned to go to the shower, he said, "No excuses."

A day later, Peake was still thinking about the scene.

"You've got to respect a guy like that," Peake said. "I was frustrated, and he was trying to cheer me up. It was something to have someone stand up for me like that. It was nice. It hadn't happened before. I'm just getting to know him, but he seems like a real team player."

Down the stretch

The Portland Pirates (formerly the Baltimore Skipjacks) have four games left, beginning with tomorrow's game at Adirondack. With 93 points (42-25-9), they are tied with the Red Wings (43-26-7) for first place in the Northern Division.

No matter what happens, the Pirates will open the 1994 Calder Cup playoffs at home April 15.

Team captain and right wing Chris Jesen injured his leg in Sunday's game at Springfield and could be out for the rest of the regular season. Jesen is the team's fifth-leading scorer with 54 goals and 33 assists.

A perfect match?

If the Philadelphia Flyers fail to make the playoffs for the fifth straight year, the rumor is that coach Terry Simpson will be on his way out the door and so will general manager Russ Farwell. If they go, there is a good chance Florida GM Bob Clarke could be moving back to his old team as GM. And who better to bring with him to coach than his old friend, former Washington coach Terry Murray, currently coaching Florida's International Hockey League affiliate in Cincinnati?

Gretzky speaking

"I've never had this feeling before in my life. It's like like being down three games in the [Stanley Cup] series," said Wayne Gretzky after his Los Angeles Kings were eliminated from playoff contention over the weekend.

This will be the first time Gretzky has missed the playoffs in his 15-year career.

But he could wind up playing in the World Championship tournament for the first time in his career, too. The tournament begins April 27 in Italy, and Gretzky has been invited to play for Canada.

"At this point in my career, I'll have to talk to different people about it, including my wife," Gretzky told The Los Angeles Times Sunday. "It's a big commitment. I've got three kids, and it's a three-week tournament."

Luc Robitaille, who hasn't been invited, suggested he would be interested, and Mike Donnelly is considering an offer to play for the United States.

Around the rinks

Capitals strength and conditioning coach Frank Costello, with Dr. E. J. "Doc" Kreis, has written the first book on "Sports Agility," which is also the name of the book. . . . Vancouver right wing Pavel Bure has been named the NHL Player of the Month for March. Bure led all NHL scorers with 30 points in 16 games.

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