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The "Hangover"

USA Today had it as their cover story in their sports section the other day: the seemingly inevitable postseason decline of the Stanley Cup champion the following season. To put it simply: since the Wings repeated in 1998, no Stanley Cup champion has advanced past the second round. Since Dallas in 2000, no Stanley Cup champion has advanced past the first round.

I agree with Christy on the Wings doing it again (then again, I thought the same thing about the other team I love, and I believe the official scorer of Game 1 of the NLCS will charge a Cubs infielder with an error out of habit). But I also don't doubt the Wings are going to be looking at a long season after a short offseason.

I'll add a couple factors:

* There is no reward for doing well in the regular season. Simply having home-ice advantage in the playoffs isn't enough, as we've seen too many 8-over-1 and 7-over-2 wins. Since 1996, there have been 15 major first round upsets: just more than one a year. In an average year, there are five seeded upsets.

* The regular season is just too long, both in games and calendar time. The idea tossed around earlier this year to add games at the start and reducing preseason games is the solution for the wrong problem.

* The geographical imbalance of the league puts Western Conference teams at a brutal disadvantage. Remember: all 15 Eastern Conference teams are in the Eastern Time Zone. The 15 Western Conference teams are spread across all four time zones.

So how do we fix this?

* Reduce the regular season to 71 games: 4 games against every team in your conference (and get rid of the stupid three-division format and just go to a 15-team conference). The trade off: The playoffs expand to 10 teams per conference, with a 7-10 and 8-9 first round matchup for a best-of-five (or even best-of-three).

* Reward the top-two seeds with an extra home game in their first playoff series. Play the first three at the higher seed, then the next two at the lower seed, then the final two back at the higher seed. If the top seed advances, they get an extra home game in the second series as well.

* Replace the east/west conference alignment with a baseball-style conference system in which each conference goes from coast to coast. Balance the playing field to force each team to play from coast-to-coast.

It's no guarantee that the best teams will always win, but it makes it a lot more likely.