A quick scan of the NHL's final regular-season standings showed that two divisions clearly stood above the pack. Not only were the Atlantic and Central the only divisions to have four teams qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they were also the only divisions in modern history to boast four teams with more than 100 points.
But with the first round of the postseason now in the books and three of its teams having advanced, the Atlantic looks like the class of the League.
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"It's pretty obvious that it [the Atlantic] is the best division in hockey," said defenseman Steve Staios of the New York Islanders, who went 8-13-3 within the division this past season and were the only Atlantic team to miss the playoffs. "Every game was ultra-competitive. They're all big, strong teams. It was a real challenge, but a good learning experience. We knew that they were tough teams -- not that we thought four teams would get as many points as they did."
No other division had more than one 100-point team in the 2011-12 season; two divisions, the Southeast and Pacific, didn't have a single team reach the plateau. The four 100-point teams are the most in one season since the current divisional format was introduced in 1998-99. Before this season, three division rivals had reached 100 points in the same season just five times since the new format was introduced, with the Pacific being the only division to do it twice, in 2006-07 and 2009-10.
Following Game 7 wins by the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils on Thursday night, the Atlantic has accomplished an impressive, if familiar, feat by getting three teams into the second round of the playoffs -- Philadelphia had advanced earlier by ousting division rival Pittsburgh in six games. The last time three teams from the same division made it to the second round was 2008, when the Penguins, Rangers, and Flyers made it through.
The playoff success of Atlantic Division teams is hardly a surprise to anyone who has played in the division.
"We like to think that it's one of, if not the most, competitive division in hockey," Islanders forward Matt Moulson told NHL.com, noting that having four Atlantic teams in the second round would have been a real possibility had the Flyers and Penguins not faced off in Round 1. The Atlantic Division is very strong. It's pretty evident in the teams that advanced in the first round. And if two Atlantic teams hadn't player each other, there might be another team."
With the Devils, Flyers, and Rangers through to the next round, it's just the fifth time in the current divisional format that three division rivals have made it this far -- and the third time for the Atlantic Division. If the Rangers can beat the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, it will be the first time division rivals have met in the Conference Finals since the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks faced off in the 2009 Western final. It would also mark the fourth time in the modern configuration that Atlantic Division rivals have met in the conference final. No other division has done that more than twice.
"With every team in our division, we knew we were in a battle," Staios said. "They were physical games, with no easy games. We knew heading into Philly or Pittsburgh or coming to [Madison Square Garden] to play [the Rangers], you're in a game right from the beginning. New Jersey plays its stifling system, so every game was a challenge in different ways."