(Reprinted with permission from FACEOFF, the newsletter of the Cornell Hockey Boosters Association, October 1997 issue)
Let's practice saying it, shall we? "ECAC Final Five." The ECAC recently announced a radical change to its hockey playoffs. Under the old system, the top ten teams made the playoffs, with the tenth-place finisher visiting the #7 team and the eighth-place team hosting #9 the Tuesday after the season ended. The winners of these preliminary round games joined the top six finishers for the quarterfinal round the ensuing weekend, and the victors in the four quarterfinal series advanced to the ECAC Tournament in Lake Placid.
Starting with the 1997-98 season, the ECAC will still send ten teams to the playoffs, but the structure will change. Citing dissatisfaction with the Tuesday night games, instituted in 1989-90 when the playoffs were expanded from eight to ten teams, the league will have all ten teams proceed directly to five weekend series. Adopting a system in use in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association since 1992-93, the league will send the five winners to Lake Placid. Those teams will be re-seeded according to their regular-season finish, with the fourth and fifth seeds playing Thursday night in a "play-in game". The winner of that game will play the highest-seeded team in one semifinal Friday, with the two and three seeds meeting in the other. As in previous years, there will be Consolation and Championship games on Saturday. ECAC officials cited the addition of a fifth team to the conference tournament, with the exposure and experience which that brings to the program, as a benefit of the new format.
The change will clearly have an impact on the ECAC regular season race. Under the old system, beyond the tenth-place finish needed to make the postseason, there was a strong incentive to finish sixth or better to earn a preliminary-round bye, and another goal in a fourth place finish and a home quarterfinal series. There were also smaller rewards for finishing eighth (home ice in the prelims) and second (a quarterfinal opponent tired from a Tuesday night game). Now the home-ice target has moved to fifth, and a third-place finish will guarantee that a team will avoid the Thursday night game in Lake Placid.
If improving the ECAC's performance in the NCAA tournament was a consideration, the effects of the change will be mixed. On the one hand, playing a tired team in the ECAC semifinals should make it easier for the regular season champion to win the conference tournament and thus earn a first-round bye in the NCAAs. (The past two regular-season champs have earned a bye on the strength of their overall rankings, but that was with Hockey East powerhouse Maine barred from the tournament.) On the other hand, requiring lower-seeded teams to win three games in Lake Placid will reduce the likelihood that a team not otherwise destined for the NCAAs will win the automatic berth that goes with a conference title.
As I see it, the new format is an awkward way of eliminating the Tuesday night games while keeping ten teams in the postseason. The WCHA went to this format because they have a ten-team league, and wanted them all to make the playoffs. The ECAC, with twelve teams, has no overwhelming reason to send ten, an inconvenient number, into the second season. The Tuesday night play-ins have been replaced with an equally unpleasant Thursday night play-in, and while there is now one rather than two, it can involve teams which finished fourth and fifth, rather than being limited to lower-seeded teams who are lucky to have made the playoffs at all. If the goal was to simplify the postseason, the league could have returned to the eight-team format used before the preliminary round was introduced.
The other reason given for the new format is the addition of a fifth team to the Lake Placid experience. But in a sense, the change reduces the number of full participants. With a four-team tournament, all four teams know they will play both days. With a Final Five, only the top three have that guarantee, while the other two have to face the possibility of departing the tournament after a Thursday night game. And I can't imagine that such a game would be well-attended, since few fans of the top three teams will take an extra day off from work, and spend an extra night in an expensive Lake Placid motel, to watch a single game involving two other schools. If expanding the scope of the ECACs was a high priority for the league, they might better have sent all twelve teams to the playoffs. A Final Six, with two play-in games Friday, two semi-finals Saturday, and Consolation and Championship games Sunday, would give fans of any team reasons to attend all three days. (Thanks to HOCKEY-L subscriber William Sangrey '87/'94 for this idea.)
One final thought on the new system. In the preseason coaches' poll, Cornell was picked to finish third in the ECAC. With this playoff format, they've got a big incentive to live up to that.