SAN JOSE -- The Sharks have waited three days for an opponent, and they'll have to wait some more. Sunday, they finally will learn whether it's Chicago or Los Angeles.

Fans new to the sport can be excused for asking: Why the long wait?

The simple answer is that, in most cases, every series must conclude before an opponent -- let alone dates and times of games -- can be established.

Which, of course, raises the question: Why?

For the past 20 years, the NHL has employed a format that honors the way teams are "seeded" at the start of the playoffs. This guarantees that the top-seeded team will draw the lowest-seeded team not only in the first round but also in the second. For example, Chicago, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference by virtue of having the best regular season record, drew No. 8 Minnesota in the first round and then draws the lowest remaining seed after the first round. That could be the sixth-seeded Sharks or seventh-seeded Detroit, which prolonged the suspense Friday night by beating Anaheim to force Game 7 on Sunday.


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"I think it lends credibility to your regular season," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said of the NHL playoff format. "When you've worked hard to end up in the number one or two spot, you should be rewarded for the playoffs for that battle you've gone through."

Things do change for the NHL next season, though. The playoffs will be division-based, and a wild-card system has been added.

There will be four divisions, and the top three teams in each will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season points and regardless of division. It will be possible, then, for one division to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends three.

In the NBA, teams are seeded for the playoffs, just like the NHL, but second-round matchup possibilities are predetermined by a bracket system. And so, whereas the Warriors and their fans knew from the instant they vanquished Denver that they would be meeting San Antonio in the second, the Sharks and their fans sit in limbo. Friday was Day Three of wondering whether it would be Chicago, Los Angeles or St. Louis, which is now out of the equation after being eliminated by the Kings on Friday.

McLellan has located the silver lining not only to this situation but also to the labor lockout that delayed the start of the season and led to a 48-game schedule limited to in-conference games.

"The only teams we played were in our conference, and we only played 48 (games)," McLellan said. "The coaches that are left now have all been around, so the systems aren't changing dramatically."

Even when you get an opponent, the establishment of game dates and start times often lag behind. That's because of the complexity of the NHL's TV deals with Canadian and American broadcasting companies. The CBC in Canada, understandably, would prefer to broadcast games involving Canadian teams, just as NBC would prefer to carry games that involve two U.S. teams. So they must wait till all the series are completed and then haggle over who gets which games.

inside

Sharks must wait until Sunday to find out their opponent in second round. PAGE 5
Henrik Zetterberg lifts Detroit past Anaheim with goal in overtime, forcing Game 7. PAGE 7

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Follow the Sharks through the playoffs at www.mercurynews.com/sharks.