Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine with me.
We're going to imagine two hockey teams in a parallel universe, playing in a league much like our beloved NHL. This parallel hockey league is very similar to our own NHL--in fact, almost identical. It has two Conferences, six Divisions, and 30 teams with very similar names to our own. The league itself is structured very similarly as well, and is called the Rational Hockey League. We're going to look at these teams in the 3007-08 season (they discovered hockey later than we did by exactly 1,000 years, in alternate-universe).
Both teams are playoff bubble teams; for either team, a playoff seed is within reach, but may not be locked up (or mathematically out of reach) until the last week of the season. A few extra points (or a few missed points) can decide whether they squeak into the playoffs in the 8th and final spot, or slip to 9th and have to be content playing off their frustrations on the golf course.
Both teams churn along until they have each played 81 games, leaving only one game apiece in the season. Nothing is certain, even at this point. With a single game left, both teams have each compiled 92 points, and are each as close to the playoff cutoff as anyone could ever wish to be. With one game left, everything is on the line: a win will get you in, a loss will get you tossed.
The first team, which is called the "Shmarolina Curry-Pains" loses their game, by a single goal. It is heartbreaking, but it is the way of things. After compiling 43 wins and 92 points, they finish in 9th place, and do not make the playoffs.
The second team, which is named the "Fashington Strap-It-Alls" is a bit luckier, or maybe a bit better. They win their final game, and squeak into the playoffs in a three-way tie for the final three spots. After taking the tiebreakers into consideration, all the way to head-to-head record with one of the other two teams, it is determined that 43 wins and 94 points is good for just about 6th place...
But wait, what's this? "Fashington" is sitting in 3rd place, and has home ice advantage in the playoffs! Instead of receiving the 6th seed, and starting the playoffs against the 3rd-best team in the conference, and on the road, they have somehow...
Somehow, it appears they have teleported all the way to the 3rd spot, directly above a team which has 99 points! Incredible.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the reason that this happened is that "Fashington" had a weak division, and none of the other four teams even made the playoffs. A little digging turns up a rule, which states that at least one team from each Division must make the playoffs, each year. Furthermore, the best team from each Division (regardless of actual performance) will be guaranteed a spot in the top 3, which includes home-ice advantage in the playoffs...even if their point total fails to exceed...well, a very small number. Yes, folks, people in alternate-universe actually have a rule which could (conceivably, though not likely) allow a team to make the playoffs despite losing almost every game in the season, so long as none of four other teams in the Division did any better.
The reason for this is also uncovered. In alternate-universe, fans are seldom just fans of ONE team. In fact, most of them think that is silly, and selfish. In the vast majority of cases, they are equally fond of exactly five teams, which (not coincidentally) is the number of teams in each Division.They might start as just a fan of one team, but over time, they would inevitable grow to love the biggest rivals of their favorite team, until they usually just ended up loving every team in the Division equally.
Yes, as strange as the idea seems to us, that's how it works there. Since fans love all the teams in a Division equally, it made sense to make a Rule that would guarantee each Division sent a representative to the playoffs, and in the top 3 spots as well. No matter how badly a fan's five favorite teams played, one of them would always be in the top 3 when playoff time rolled around.
So, you see, it made perfect sense to alternate-universe fans to give the "Fashington Strap-It-Alls" the third seed and home ice advantage. Since all four of the other teams in the Division made a mess of the season and missed the playoffs, it made sense to put the remaining team into the 3rd spot so as to make the fans of that Division happy. Never mind earning it, that's what the fans want to see, and so that's what they'll see. They aren't about to let 1/6 of the Rational Hockey League fans be bored when the first round of playoffs rolls around.
Of course, in our universe, such a thing would never fly. We make teams earn their playoff spots, and they get the spot that they earn. Fans in our universe usually hate the other teams in their Division, and if their favorite team misses the playoffs, they would usually love it if all the other teams in their Division missed also. I'm glad no one in our universe would even think of making a Rule like that.
Why, the fans would revolt, and write veritable metric tonnes of sternly worded letters to the Commissioner, demanding swift and decisive action to rectify the situation, immediately...
I'm frightfully glad this was just a silly story, and nothing like it has ever taken place in our universe. Certainly not almost every year. And most especially not in the Eastern Conference in the 2007-08 season. Very glad indeed, as such a thing would be complete rubbish if it happened.