This Caps and Penguins series might be a classic. It shouldn’t be happening in the second round. – INTELLINEWS

The Caps and Penguins shake hands after last year’s second-round series. The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

To complain about a league’s playoff format or a given year’s playoff matchups is, in the popular phrase, “loser talk.” It’s also a waste of time, and likely signifies multiple personal failings, including a persecution complex, a vitamin B-12 deficiency, and a serious case of ornithophobia. Flightless ornithophobia.

So please indulge me in a few hundred words worth of Monday morning loser talk. Just today. Just between us. Tuesday we can move on to serious matters, such as the best place to eat breakfast in Breezewood (it’s Sheetz), or the importance of Lars Eller’s third line in this upcoming Caps-Penguins series. Before that, let’s acknowledge the obvious: There shouldn’t be an upcoming Caps-Penguins series. Not yet, anyhow.

We’ve all been complaining about this for three months, once it became clear that the Capitals, Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets were three of the five best teams in the NHL, and that two of them would be forced to meet in the first round, with the winner likely to immediately face the league’s top team. Requiring your strongest performers to scratch each other’s eyes out a month shy of the championship round sounds like a great tactic for a high school football coach. But it’s a curious way to organize a sports league.

There was always a chance, though, that something would change. One of those three Metro powerhouses might falter, suffering a bout of late-season single-tracking. Or maybe the top overall seed would be upset in the first round. Or maybe so many strong teams would advance past the first round that this one heavyweight matchup would seem less egregiously dumb.

Instead, we’re now looking at something like the opposite of that. The Caps and Penguins — the first- and second-best teams in the NHL — both won in the first round, and will face each other this week, starting Thursday night. Seven other teams finished with at least 100 points; four have been eliminated. And so the second-round matchups have all the logical consistency of a third-grader’s Pynchon plot diagram.

Here are those matchups, based on regular season points:

12 vs. 13.

10 vs. 16.

6 vs. 8.

1 vs. 2. (Hi mom!)

And it isn’t just boring stuff such as wins and losses. The Penguins averaged the most goals per game; the Caps were third, while also allowing the fewest goals-against. Pittsburgh had the league’s third-best power play; Washington’s was fourth. Washington was 41-1-1 when leading after two periods; the Penguins were 37-1-1. Washington had the league’s best third-period goal differential; Pittsburgh was tied for second. That sounds like a great second-round matchup to … nobody. If you reseeded teams by conference, the Caps would face No. 12 Ottawa, and the Penguins would face the No. 9 Rangers, and not one person would complain.

If the argument is that the Penguins and Caps will juice up an otherwise flavorless second round, well, wouldn’t it be better to put a jolt into the Eastern Conference finals? If the argument is that only division rivals can stoke postseason excellence, well, that just-concluded Caps-Leafs series was about as excellent as playoff hockey can get, even though the teams had literally zero postseason history. If the argument is that unpredictability is what makes the playoffs great, I’m here to tell you that the NHL already is crammed full of unpredictability, no matter how the bracket shakes out. At some point, a tiny bit of predictability might be nice — especially if you’re predicting the two best teams might play when the stakes are as high as possible.

(Have I mentioned that this is loser talk? I know this is loser talk. Might as well change my byline to Daniellll Steinberg. If I were any more low-energy right now, I would be trying to buy the Florida Marlins.)

The thing is, there is history here. The Caps and Penguins played in the second round in 2009, and there was a feeling that the winner might go on to claim the Stanley Cup. The Penguins won, and went on to claim the Stanley Cup. Then the Caps and Penguins played in the second round in 2016 — which was dumb, because they were the East’s two best teams — and there was a feeling that the winner might go on to claim the Stanley Cup.  The Penguins won, and went on to claim the Stanley Cup.

The system was so obviously cuckoo last year that people wrote columns about it then. Okay, I wrote a column about it then. Okay, it was the exact same column as this one. Sue me. You know how many columns Dana Milbank has written about Trump?

It’s gotten to the point where Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan starts laughing before I even start spitting out my questions, because he knows they will be about existential unfairness rather than the Lars Eller line. Is it good for the sport to have the three best teams weed each other out before the conference finals?

“I’d like to see it reset after every round so that you get the best matchups at the end,” the GM acknowledged two months ago, as the Fairness Express slowly inched toward its inevitable plunge off Mount Bettman. “We’re gonna have some good series here in the beginning of the playoffs, [where] the best teams are playing against each other. I think it could be frustrating for fans, players, management, owners to see that happen. You’re going to see two good teams out. … Even if it was happening in a different division, you don’t want to see those teams out right away. I don’t want to see 1 and 2 out. I want to see them meet when it’s even more tension and more at stake.”

That’s the point, and it actually has nothing to do with loser talk. It’s not that anyone wants the Caps to have a soft or boring path toward the championship. It’s that we — we being anyone who cares about sports — would like to see the best matchups at the biggest moments. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin will never play for the Stanley Cup. But when their teams have the most points in the Eastern Conference — as they’ve done two seasons in a row — it’s both silly and self-defeating for them to battle in early May.

Skeptics will say that this Caps season won’t be a success unless Washington finally wins a Cup anyhow, and that’s fair enough. Losing to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals instead of the second round would not cause celebrations on Pennsylvania Ave. — it’ll probably be entirely shuttered by then anyhow — and “Eastern Conference Finals Participant” T-shirts sales would not be brisk. Still, Ovechkin, Coach Barry Trotz and the entire Caps organization have been endlessly clubbed with the “can’t get past the second round” label. Ending that would be a minor victory, but minor victories are better than minor losses. For competitive excellence, for maximum thrills and for basic fairness, this system should be fixed.

Okay. All done. No more complaining. Unless Sheetz runs out of breakfast sandwiches.

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