Things may seem a bit odd for the Wild when they step on the ice at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, but the players can hardly be blamed for finding the surroundings unfamiliar. There was once a time when NHL teams played in every other team's building at least once a season, but the increase in divisional games and the expansion of the NHL from 21 to 30 teams over the past two decades has put an end to those days.
The Wild generally only find themselves in a particular Eastern Conference arena once every two years, and when they do it is often the only time they'll see that arena's home team that season, but that won't be the case tonight in New York. To fill out the 82-game schedule, every team has three cross-conference foes that it will face twice each year.
Minnesota and New York will face off Thursday for a rare round two.
Two points are worth just as much in March as they are in October, but with the season coming down to its final month and both teams embroiled in ever tightening postseason races, it's not hard to see that these unusual "bonus games" against cross-conference opponents can have a significant impact in the playoff chase.
Obviously, a large part of how any season turns out revolves around when you play who you play. Over the course of an 82-game schedule any team is prone to fits and starts and changes in momentum. But with the scheduling inequities caused by the rotation of bonus teams, these issues can be exacerbated. In the case of Minnesota, which is currently in 11th place in the West, but just two points out of the final playoff spot, the Wild are scheduled to play two games this year against the Rangers, Hurricanes and Lightning, all teams that, if the season ended today, would make the playoffs out of the East. Minnesota has won just one of the four games it has played against those teams so far this season.
In the case of some of the Wild's direct competition, significant differences can be exploited to gain an upper hand in the standings. Take, for example, the Chicago Blackhawks, who are just four points ahead of Minnesota, but would be hosting a first-round series if the season ended tomorrow. Chicago's bonus games this season are against the Sabres, Panthers and Lightning. While the Lightning have been one of the League's best teams all season, Buffalo and Florida are on the outside looking in in the Eastern Conference.
In addition, Chicago has yet to play either of its two games against Florida, which was almost completely dismantled ahead of this Monday's trade deadline by GM Dale Tallon with an eye toward the future. Such a fortunate turn in the schedule could give the Hawks a significant advantage as they battle other teams for a berth in the still stunningly tight Western Conference.
Of course, while those instances could provide a disadvantage for Minnesota, at least the Wild can hang their hat on one underrated aspect of their game in New York -- it keeps them out of the fray. Aside from the small consolation that if Minnesota loses Thursday the two points won't go directly to its competition, there is something to be said for the fact that of the 10 Western Conference teams also in action, eight of them are playing other Western Conference teams. Nine of those teams are either jockeying for position or scrapping just to have any playoff berth. As San Jose faces off with Detroit, Nashville takes on Vancouver and -- in a game with huge ramifications -- Los Angeles meets Phoenix, the Wild have a golden opportunity to pick up points on the east coast while their Western Conference foes are beating up on one another.
As the Coyotes and Kings skate in a zero-sum game, the Wild have a significantly lower-risk opportunity to gain some positive traction in the standings.