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April Madness: How the NHL Playoffs Would Look Like with NCAA Format

North Carolina Tar Heels Championship Welcome Rally Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

As corporate office productivity across America slows to a screeching halt and waiters at Buffalo Wild Wings work mandatory overtime, the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament begins. Dominating the March media cycle, many claim that the “one-and-done” format creates a thrilling experience for fans everywhere. With all of the complaints about the current NHL playoff format, how would it look like if they used the NCAA’s playoff format?

Thankfully, you have us at On The Forecheck here to tell you.

Using point percentage as of March 8 before any games have been played, the top 18 teams have all been seeded. Using the basic 16-team bracket, every team has been seeded based on pure points percentage before the games on March 8th. No division restraints. The 15th-18th seeded teams will play in a “First Four” round like the men’s basketball tournament. From there, the teams will play in a North, South, East, or West regional at neutral sites. The winner of each region then meets in the Frozen Four, also played at a neutral site.

Without further ado, your 2018 April Madness Tournament!

First Four:

Host City: Pyeongchang, South Korea

Calgary Flames (18) v. Los Angeles Kings (15)

New Jersey Devils (17) v. St. Louis Blues (16)

Somewhere in the NHL’s corporate offices at 1185 6th Ave, New York, NY, Gary Bettman reclines back on a posh burgundy leather chair, cigar in hand. Turned away from his desk, Deputy Commissioner & Chief Legal Office Bill Daly walks in, yellow legal sheets in hand dotted with scribbles.

“Gary, I have the results back from the committee on game growth. They think that, to grow the league, we should have Quebec City host the first four.”

Without looking around, Bettman extinguishes his cigar in an ashtray on his desk. The view clears, and it’s a giant oil painting of Sidney Crosby behind his desk that he’s starring at. “Que - Quebec City?” he stammers.

“Yes, m’lord.”

After a long pause, Bettman swerves around, wearing the drab of his favorite Star Wars character, Emperor Palpatine. “Look, Bill, we have to expand this league worldwide. Look at places like Phoenix, who have created Canadian legend Auston Matthews.”

“You mean Glendale?” Daly interjects.

“Wha - yes, of course, Glendale! What did you think I said? I KNOW HOCKEY DAMNIT!” The room shakes from Bettman’s shrill scream, the oil panting sliding crooked behind him. Fists clenched, he takes a deep breath. “Anyways, we need to expand the game globally. Think Asia. Now there hasn’t been any big hockey tournaments over there recently, have there?”

“Nothing that I saw on NBC’s Wednesday Rivalry Night, sir.”

“Good. Let’s do South Korea, then. Nothing could have possibly just taken place there. Make sure you drop those notes of yours in the shredder on your way out.”

“Oh, no worries, these aren’t notes,” Daly quickly responds, placing the papers on Bettman’s desk next to a ten-thousand page dossier titled ‘Goalie Interference and How to Make it More Complicated.’ “I was playing tic-tac-toe with Head of Player Safety George Parros during the meeting.”

Bettman leans back, picks up his glass of whisky on the rocks and turns back to his oil painting of Crosby behind him. “Good, verrrrrrry good...”

Meanwhile, the higher seeded teams each win in this round. The Blues and Kings each advance.

Sweet Sixteen:


Host City: Pittsburgh, PA

St. Louis Blues (16) v. Nashville Predators (1)

Pittsburgh Penguins (9) v. Washington Capitals (8)

“M’lord?” Daly utters, scampering back into Bettman’s dark wooden and windowless office after the seeding. “We - we have a problem with the seeding and game locations.”

Bettman looks up from the large dossier he’s reading through, presumably the one about goalie interference. There are highlights and scribbles all over it. “Yes? What’s the matter?”

“Well, you know how we want Pittsburgh to win the Stanley Cup again?”

“Obviously, go on.”

“Well, we got them in a playoff matchup against the Capitals.”

“That’s perfect! Exactly what we wanted! What’s the problem?”

Daly looks down at his feet. “If - if they win, there’s a high likelihood that they’ll play the Predators in the next round, and that group is supposed to play in Bridgestone Arena?”

“WHAT??” Bettman stands up, clenches and crushes his whisky glass in his hand. Or, at least he tries to. He just ends up squeezing it reeeeeeeally hard and hurts his hand doing so. He sets it down. “Who thought it would be a good idea to have Nashville host?”

“You, sir! You mentioned with its growth in fandom, blossoming youth hockey culture, and lively downtown that it would be perfect.”

“Lies! The moron Bergevin must have put me up to this at the last General Manager’s meeting.” Bettman turns around, admiring his oil painting of Crosby once more. “Good thing we have Mario Lemieux on speed dial. Tell him to get PPG Paints Arena ready - he’s got a regional to host.”

As expected, the Penguins dispose of the Capitals in the playoffs, and the Predators take down a jet-lagged Blues team coming back from South Korea.


Host City: Glendale, AZ

Philadelphia Flyers (13) v. Winnipeg Jets (4)

Dallas Stars (12) v. Vegas Golden Knights (5)

In looking for another host city, Phoenix/Glendale makes a lot of sense. The abundance of hotels, conference centers, and warm weather checks a lot of boxes of what a league would look for in a neutral site location. Plus, it provides local Coyotes fans a chance to actually watch playoff hockey, so that’s a huge benefit.

Furthermore, it’s expected that tons of Vegas fans will make the nearby trip to Glendale, but Winnipeg fans ultimately make up the largest percentage of travelers. Bettman is shocked that a Canadian team has such a following, but everyone who actually knows hockey kind of expected it.

In essentially a home game on bad ice, the Jets defeat the Flyers 7-5 in a game featuring next to no defense. Meanwhile, William Karlsson can’t sustain his 24.0 shooting percentage and the Golden Knights fall 3-1 to the Stars.


Host City: Chicago, IL

Colorado Avalanche (14) v. Boston Bruins (3)

Anaheim Ducks (11) v. Toronto Maple Leafs (6)

“Hey Daly, wouldn’t it be great, just great, if we got the Blackhawks outdoor playoff games at home? Whatever their seed is, we’ll say that they’re in the North region and host everything at Soldier Field. It may be mid-April, but it’ll still be cold in Chicago! The ice will be great!”

“Well, Gary, the Blackhawks didn-”

“Oh, one sec Bill, I have Rocky Wirtz on the line.” “Yep, you got it Rocky! Get Soldier Field ready, we’re coming to Chicago!” -click- “Alright Bill, what was that you were saying?”

“The Blackhawks didn’t make the playoffs.”

“Oh f-”

Unfortunately, the ice and weather ends up being horrible, as Chicago weather in mid-April is actually just showers and temperatures in the low-40s. Nobody shows up because, if they’re going to be stuck in that kind of weather, it’ll be while watching their kids play little league.

The ice slows down the skill of the Bruins, but they still beat the Avalanche, who are really just happy to be here. The Leafs, on the other hand, are so slowed down by the ice that the aging Ducks are able to catch them. After losing 4-0, they announce that Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner all left with upper-body injuries and won’t play for nine months. Meanwhile, Ryan Kesler posts a shirtless photo on instagram holding one tooth from each of them.


Host City: Seattle, WA

Los Angeles Kings (15) v. Tampa Bay Lightning (2)

San Jose Sharks (10) v. Minnesota Wild (7)

Why not see how the potential expansion market handles playoff hockey? In a test to see how many fans come out to watch, the NHL determines having Seattle host is a great idea. Plus, two of the teams in this region are from California, so travel will not be a huge issue here. Of course, most fans end up coming in on buses from Vancouver, but the NHL just ignores that fact.

The Tampa Bay Lightning keep up their reputation as one of the most feared teams in the league, defeating the Kings 5-1. The next game between the Sharks and Wild, dubbed “the Battle of Brent Burns”, is much more exciting, ending in a 2-1 overtime victory for the Sharks as Joe Thorton accidentally passes the puck into the net. Even the media doesn’t criticize Devin Dubnyk, as who could have realistically expected Thorton to actually put a puck on goal?

Elite Eight:

For the Elite Eight, all region host cities remain the same as in the previous round.


Host City: Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh Penguins (9) v. Nashville Predators (1)

Midway through the first period, P.K. Subban scores off of a screaming slapshot from the point. But wait! The Penguins challenge for offsides, saying Filip Forsberg is offsides! Overturned!

Midway through the second period, Colton Sissons scores as Matt Murray lets an easy save leak behind him. But wait! The referee says no goal! He was in the process of blowing his whistle!

Midway through the third period, Jake Guentzel scores for the Penguins. But wait! Letang had brought the puck clearly over the blue line before the goal.

Thankfully, the NHL isn’t Vladmir Putin’s KHL clown show, and the goal is overturned. However, Sidney Crosby gets two minutes for roughing, as he punched P.K. Subban in the back of the head during the entire video review. Just to be fair, the refs also give Subban two minutes.

Eventually, in overtime, a huge fight breaks out. Huge. Everyone has someone tied up in an absolute bloodbath on the ice. However, Craig Smith refuses to fight. Even Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros are in the mix. Hell, Roman Josi lost a tooth. WHO LET SOMEONE TAKE A TOOTH FROM ROMAN JOSI? However, after ten minutes of watching this massacre taking place, Smith jumps the bench, arms stretched up in the air. He delicately takes a glove off his left hand. Then his right. He does a spin. The Arena Entertainment staff change the song from “A Little Bit South of Saskatoon” to “The Stripper.”

All Bob Newman fans know what happens next. The Predators win 1-0 via forfeit.


Host City: Glendale, AZ

Dallas Stars (12) v. Winnipeg Jets (4)

Once again, with all of their fans behind them, the Jets defeat the Stars. Blake Wheeler has three assists, all to Patrik Laine on the power play, resulting in a 3-0 win. The Stars media chalks the loss up to Alexander Radulov being suspended by head coach Ken Hitchcock. People find it hard to believe, but apparently Radulov broke curfew by partying at 3:00am in downtown Phoenix. Really, who could have possibly seen that coming?


Host City: Chicago, IL

Anaheim Ducks (11) v. Boston Bruins (3)

After the first two games and then a slate of youth games using the outdoor ice, the rink at Soldier Field is even worse than it originally was. Brad Marchand and Corey Perry have a competition to see who can injure the most players. However, being a lot less subtle than Perry, Marchand ends up taking 30 minutes worth of penalties. On a power play for literally half the game, the Ducks take this one 7-2.


Host City: Seattle, WA

San Jose Sharks (10) v. Tampa Bay Lightning (2)

In a great game, the Lightning end up beating the Sharks by a score of 4-2. The game was 3-2 with just under a minute left in the third period, but Evander Kane got a major for unsportsmanlike conduct just for being Evander Kane, and the Lightning end up scoring on an empty net.

Frozen Four

Host City: Toronto

Winnipeg Jets (4) v. Nashville Predators (1)

Anaheim Ducks (11) v. Tampa Bay Lightning (2)

The NHL loves hosting events in Toronto. The de facto “world capital of hockey”*, the NHL decides there’s no better place to host the championships than here. Come on, with what a resounding success the World Cup of Hockey was, why wouldn’t someone want these games in Toronto?

In a battle of Central Division titans, the Predators barely scrape by the Jets by the score of 6-5 off of a late Ryan Hartman goal in the last minute. Meanwhile, the Ducks, not used to playing on actual good ice after the abomination that was Soldier Field’s outdoor rink, can’t keep up with the Lightning. They run wild all over the Ducks, beating them 4-0.

*= only applies to native English speakers.


Host City: Toronto

Tampa Bay Lightning (2) v. Nashville Predators (1)

I refuse to be a jinx, so I will not call an outcome. No matter what, it becomes an instant classic full of great skill, speed, and everything Scott Stevens hates in life.


While much of this was done in jest, there are very clear pros of such a format, the first being that the best teams make the tournament. There would not be any instances of a team like the Blues missing the playoffs while the Panthers or Devils make it in. Furthermore, the unlocking of divisions and conferences means that the best teams do not get penalized for playing each other early on merely for being in the same division. Additionally, because there are fewer games, fatigue and injury will be less of a concern as the playoffs wear on. Games would arguably be decided by better hockey. Finally, cities that maybe don’t have an NHL team could experience it by hosting. Imagine how well hosting a regional in Madison, WI would work out. It would be phenomenal and, as a great way to grow the game, I firmly believe that the NHL should let non-NHL cities host the All-Star game.

On the other side, it takes these teams a full, grueling, demanding 82 game schedule to get to this tournament. Is it fair for one game to decide the outcome for those high seeds who played their rears off all season long? Absolutely not. That’s the beauty of the best-of-seven format: you get a long-term reward for being the best in the regular season. That’s why, unless the NHL wants to just say that the regular season is meaningless, the NCAA format would not be good for the NHL.