Two of the Eastern Conference's elite will finish the regular season in the middle of the pack, even though they will have better records than some of the teams that will finish ahead of them.

Welcome to the wacky world of the NHL, where teams are seeded 1-2-3 for finishing first in their respective divisions, regardless of their accumulated number of points.

The topic was addressed Monday as Peter Laviolette drove from Voorhees to the Wells Fargo Center for the morning skate. On the phone from Massachusetts was Laviolette's mom, Helen. She was not happy with commissioner Gary Bettman and his staff.

"My mother chewed my ear off the whole ride in," Laviolette said, drily, before Monday's game against Tampa Bay. "I wanted to give her Mr. Bettman's phone number so she could complain. She was twisted. She couldn't understand . . . the numbers, and not getting home ice."

Based on points, the best teams in the East are the Rangers, Penguins and Flyers.

Yet, it's a good bet two of those teams will meet in the opening round of the playoffs next month. That means one of the Big Three (likely the Flyers) will not get home-ice advantage. It also means one will be on the golf course while an East lightweight still has Stanley Cup dreams.

Such is life in the NHL, where division titles mean everything in the seedings.

Hence, Florida, the Southeast leader with 87 points and a team that has more losses (39) than wins (36), figures to be seeded higher than several teams that have more points. That group includes Pittsburgh, which has 13 more points than the Panthers, but is seeded fourth. Florida is seeded third.

Boston, which has fewer points than Pittsburgh and the fifth-seeded Flyers, is seeded second because it leads the Northeast. If the playoff started today, the Penguins would be given the biggest injustice - having to face a seven-game, first-round war with the Flyers, even though they have the second-most points in the East - and even though no team in the NHL has more wins.

Based on the current standings, Florida will probably get the No. 3 seed and face sixth-seeded New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs.

New Jersey should be celebrating. The sixth-seeded Devils will have a much easier path to the conference semifinals than two of the following three Atlantic Division heavyweights: the Rangers, Penguins and Flyers.

Laviolette kidded that a new format would be "a great idea this year," but also said it's "wasted energy" to worry about what he can't control.

The Flyers say they will likely have to meet the Rangers and Penguins at some point during the playoffs, so it might as well be in the first round.

Not only will the loser of the Flyers vs. Penguins/Rangers likely first-round matchup be eliminated, but the winner figures to be fatigued from a long series - and that could have a far-reaching effect.

Proponents say the current setup makes sense because the NHL wants to make division races relevant. The NHL claims an unbalanced schedule - teams play division rivals six times, and nondivision conference rivals four times - makes it unfair to rank teams by points.

I say division races are given too much weight, and that the many patsies in the Northeast and Southeast divisions make it even more amazing that those respective division leaders - Boston and Florida - don't have more points.

From here, the division champion deserves to earn a playoff berth. Period.

Suggestion: Guarantee division winners a playoff spot, but nothing more. Make each game more meaningful by rewarding a team's point total. Even if a division winner finishes, say, 11th in the conference, it would get the eighth and final playoff spot.

Since the league went to a three-division format in 1998-99, this figures to be just the second year that two of the three champs would have dropped in the seedings if it were based on points and not titles.

Below is how the conference race would look under a seedings-by-points format, based on records through Monday (The number in parentheses is their seeding in the current setup):

1. Rangers (1).

2. Penguins (4).

3. Flyers (5).

4. Bruins (2).

5. Devils (6).

6. Panthers (3).

7. Senators (7).

8. Capitals (8).

Under the new format, the first round would look like this: Rangers-Capitals; Penguins-Senators; Flyers-Panthers; Bruins-Devils.

Those pairings are much more equitable than the real matchups.

Just ask Helen Laviolette.