With the addition of two new teams, the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts, the NHL bumped up the number of games from 78 to 80 and split the previously two-division league into four divisions and two conferences. Because the new conferences and divisions had little to do with North American geography, geographical references were also removed until 1993. The East Division became the Prince of Wales Conference and consisted of the Adams Division and Norris Division. The West Division became the Clarence Campbell Conference and consisted of the Patrick Division and Smythe Division. The Capitals had the worst season ever recorded in the history of major professional hockey, and the third worst in the postwar era the following season, while the Scouts the following season would have the fifth worst record of the postwar era.
In early 1975, newspapers reported that the California Golden Seals and Pittsburgh Penguins were to be relocated to Denver and Seattle respectively, in an arrangement that would have seen the two teams sold to groups in those cities that had already been awarded "conditional" franchises for the 1976-77 season. After staunchly rejecting previous franchise relocation attempts, league president Clarence Campbell saw this as a method by which the NHL might extricate itself from two problem markets, while honoring the expansion commitments it had made. The Penguins ended up staying in Pittsburgh (and ultimately, over time, made Pittsburgh one of the NHL's stronger markets), while the Golden Seals would move to Cleveland in 1976 to become the Cleveland Barons before merging with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978. While Seattle has yet to have an NHL team, the Scouts gave up on Kansas City after two seasons and made the 604-mile (972 km) trip west along Interstate 70 to Denver to become the Colorado Rockies in 1976 before moving east to East Rutherford, New Jersey in 1982 and becoming the New Jersey Devils; Denver would return to the NHL in 1995 when the Quebec Nordiques moved there and became the Colorado Avalanche, where they remain to this day.
For the first time ever in the National Hockey League, there was a three-way tie for first place overall. The respective divisional leaders of the Norris, Patrick, and Adams all had 113 points. The Vancouver Canucks, which had been playing in the original East Division since they debuted in the league, were moved over to the Campbell Conference and led the way in the Smythe Division with a meager 86 points. Bobby Orr won the scoring title for the second time, the only defenceman in the history of the NHL to accomplish this feat.
The surprise team of the year were the Los Angeles Kings. When the new divisional lineup was announced, many hockey experts felt the Montreal Canadiens were in the weakest division and joked they would clinch first place by Christmas. But the Kings, with their disciplined defensive style, and excellent goaltending tandem of Rogie Vachon and Gary Edwards, battled Montreal all year for first place. The Kings opened their season by beating the defending champion Philadelphia Flyers in Philadelphia and tying the Canadiens in Montreal. The Kings lost only twice in their first 26 games, and on Christmas, Montreal had only a two-point lead in the standings. When L.A. won in Montreal in mid-January, they were back in first place. The teams continued to battle, with the Canadiens finally clinching first place with three games to play.
With the new conference and division structure, the 1975 playoffs used a new format. The playoffs were expanded from 8 to 12 teams with the top 3 teams in each division qualifying for the playoffs. The first place teams in each division earned a first round bye, while the second and third place teams were seeded 1–8 based on their regular season record and played a best 2 out of 3 "mini-series." The four division winners then joined the 4 mini series winners in the quarter finals, and they were again re-seeded 1–8 based on regular season record. This re-seeding would take place again in the semi finals, and is used in the current playoff format (although it was not used between 1982 and 1993). Proponents of this re-seeding state that it makes the regular season more important by rewarding teams with better records with potentially easier matchups. In addition, it avoids the potential issue of two lower seeded teams (who may have pulled early round upsets) playing each other in the next round while two higher seeded teams are playing each other (as is possible in a "bracketed" playoff format like in the NBA). The biggest beneficiary of this format was the Vancouver Canucks, who were ninth overall in the regular season but received a first-round bye for winning the relatively weak Smythe Division. The ones who suffered from this were the Los Angeles Kings, who had the 4th best overall record but had to play in the risky mini series where they were upset by the Toronto Maple Leafs 2 games to 1.
During the 1975 Stanley Cup playoffs, the New York Islanders, playing in their first playoffs since their inception in the 1972–73 NHL season, nearly managed an incredible series of upsets to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. After upsetting the New York Rangers two games to one in the preliminary round, the Islanders found themselves behind the Pittsburgh Penguins three games to none in the best-of-seven series in the quarterfinal round. The Islanders rallied to win the next four games and take the series 4–3. The only other sports teams to accomplish the feat of rallying from a 3–0 game deficit to win, were the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1942 Stanley Cup Finals, the MLB Boston Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS and the 2010Philadelphia Flyers. In the semifinal round of the playoffs, the Islanders nearly did it again. Rallying from another three games to none deficit, they won the next three games to force a seventh game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers took the decisive seventh game at home to win the series and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
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