Little of what has transpired in the National Hockey League playoffs seems to make sense if you look at the numbers that were registered after 21 teams played 80 regular-season games each.

But if you look at it from the viewpoint of Boston Bruins General Manager Harry Sinden, it starts to look more logical.

"The relationship between the regular season and the playoffs is nil," he said.

In theory, it ought to be the Philadelphia Flyers playing the Quebec Nordiques for the Wales Conference crown, with the Edmonton Oilers meeting the Chicago Blackhawks for the Campbell Conference title, which is how it was last year.

Instead, the New York Rangers are playing the Montreal Canadiens, and the Calgary Flames are facing the St. Louis Blues.

If the Canadiens -- who finished second to Quebec in the Adams Division and beat Boston in the first round -- hadn't beaten Hartford in overtime of the seventh game of their second-round series, there would have been two fourth-place teams vying for the Wales title.

Calgary, which will open tonight at home, finished 30 points south of Edmonton in the Smythe Division. Two years ago, the Flames took the Oilers to a seventh game in the playoffs. But in their last 25 regular-season meetings, Calgary has won only twice, though one of those was the final game of this regular season.

The two-time champion Oilers were the only division winners to survive the first round.

"Teams like New York are really motivated now," said Buffalo General Manager Scotty Bowman, whose team finished fifth in the Adams and thus didn't make the playoffs, but had more points (80) than four of the 16 playoff teams. "They didn't challenge during the regular season. The playoffs are a new season, and everything is fresh. Those teams don't have much burnout during the regular season, so they're psychologically motivated to come back. And it's always been this way."

Sinden agreed that the NHL playoffs have always had surprises, but only to a point.

"Every year is different, but it's nothing like this year where all four division winners are out," Sinden said.

"One reason is that it's hard to play in the first round. The underdog has a very equal chance to win.

"I'm more shocked that Calgary beat Edmonton rather than the first-round upsets.

"Teams can be in a hell of a battle for first and then get beat in the first round. It isn't quite fair. A team is 25 percent less effective and enters the playoffs as almost equal, except for the other team having one more game at home, which isn't as big a factor in the playoffs as it is in the regular season.

"I thought three teams stood out during the regular season -- Edmonton, Philadelphia and Washington.

"Then there were about 10 teams on a level below, who were still good themselves.

"Then there were some weaker clubs. Three from the group of 10, and the Rangers from the lower group, are entering the semifinals."

Washington Capitals General Manager David Poile, whose team lost to the Rangers in six games, said, "Obviously, it shows that the playoff formats within the divisions work.

"All the teams know each other so well. Calgary built its team to beat Edmonton. We set up our team to play the Flyers, Islanders and Rangers."

The familiarity, plus a consistent opponent, may bring out the best or worst in coaching, Sinden said.

"In the playoffs, coaching ability could also be more of a factor than in the regular season," Sinden said. "With four games in a week against just one team, you're able to devise certain strategies."

Hartford General Manager Emile Francis said there is greater parity in the league than any time since expansion.

"There's not much difference between first and fourth," said Francis, who suggested having the top three teams in each division qualify, along with the next four teams with the highest point totals.

"One reason for the parity is that years ago, teams tried to build with instant success and traded first-round draft picks.

"Some of them were trading them away like they were going out of style. Now that's rare and it stops the strong teams from getting stronger."

But doesn't what has happened diminish the importance of the regular season?

"I don't think so," Bowman said. "The regular season is one thing and the playoffs are another. Having clubs in the hunt to the end makes it interesting. If we didn't have all those teams in the playoffs, a lot of places would be turned off."

The idea of changing the playoff system is one possibility, but one for which there does not seem to be a groundswell of support.

"I'm not totally against the system," Sinden said. "For 50 years there were six teams in the league and four made the playoffs and there were no complaints.

"And now, it's the best four teams in a division. There's merit to the system, but you're always looking for ways to correct it. The first-place team should get better treatment . . .

"One thing that could be done is give a bigger home-ice advantage in the best of five. Make it 2-1-2, four home games instead of three. That's what you get for finishing first.

"I made that suggestion to the league and it was voted down. If you work your butt off to finish first, you should get something for it."

Whatever the format, it will ultimately come down to how a team performs in April and May.

"Isn't that what it's all about?" asked General Manager Bob Clarke, whose Flyers lost to the Rangers in the first round after finishing the regular season three places and 32 points better.

"If you're better than a team, you'll beat them. If we were better than the Rangers, we would have beaten them. Maybe we were better in the regular season, but we couldn't beat them in a five-game playoff.

"For whatever reasons . . . you can say they got the bounces and the breaks, but the point is we didn't beat them. And now we have to work to do something about that."