Last season, Pittsburgh finished first in the Atlantic Division, ahead of the New York Rangers, the New York Islanders, Philadelphia and New Jersey. This upcoming season, the Penguins will be looking to defend that title against those same teams plus three new ones – Carolina, Columbus and Washington – in the Metropolitan Division.
As part of the NHL’s realignment plan that will be implemented for the 2013-14 campaign, the league will be in a more geographically appropriate two-conference, four-division format with 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 teams in the Western Conference.
The Eastern Conference divisions (Metropolitan and Atlantic – which will now consist of Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, and Toronto) have eight teams in each while the Western Conference divisions (Central and Pacific) have seven teams in each.
Here’s how realignment affects Pittsburgh’s schedule…
• In total, the Penguins will play 82 regular-season games this season – 30 against their seven fellow Metropolitan Division foes; 24 games against the eight teams from the Atlantic Division; and 28 games against the 14 teams from the Western Conference.
• Pittsburgh will play five games against the Philadelphia Flyers (3 home; 2 away) and Columbus Blue Jackets (2 home; 3 away); and four games (2 home; 2 away) against the other five Metropolitan Division teams.
• The Penguins will play three games each against the eight teams in the Atlantic division – either two at home and one away or once at home and twice away. Teams that the Penguins will play twice at home and once away are Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Pittsburgh will play Boston, Detroit, Florida and Tampa Bay just once at home.
• And finally, for the first time since the 1997-98 season, the Penguins will play each of the 14 Western Conference teams once at home and once on the road.
The pre-realignment Atlantic Division was known for being one of toughest and most competitive divisions in the NHL, as it was not uncommon to see all five teams battling until the very end of the regular season to make the playoffs every year (and usually at least three advancing). Plus, the gap between the first-place team and the last-place team tended to be relatively small – especially compared to the gaps in other divisions.
It also had some of the most intense rivalries, starting with the legendary, hate-filled and bitter one between cross-state teams Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. And there was no love lost between the Penguins and any of the other teams in the division, either.
It doesn’t look like the new Metropolitan Division will be any friendlier. All of the rivalries from the former Atlantic Division, of course, will stay intact. The Capitals are already a current rival of Pittsburgh with all of the star power and history, and now that they’ll see more of each other we can only speculate as to how much more intense that will become. And there’s also more juicy potential for dislike to build between the Penguins and both the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets. More on that below...
The main reason Pittsburgh and Columbus could develop an exciting rivalry is the short distance between them. All seven of the Penguins’ Metropolitan Division opponents are within driving distance (Carolina is the farthest at about 7-and-a-half hours), but Columbus is by far the closest at just under three hours away.
A lot of Penguins fans made the trip to Columbus the last time Pittsburgh played there on Dec. 4, 2010, as there was an influx of black and gold jerseys in the stands at the game. And with five games between the teams (three in Columbus, two in Pittsburgh) this season – including a home-and-home series on Nov. 1-2 – fans from both teams will probably venture into enemy territory to support their clubs. Call the Penguins and the Blue Jackets destination rivals, if you will, with that added element of fan travel.
The Penguins and the Capitals already have one of the NHL’s marquee rivalries. They clashed in the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field, on a few Super Bowl Sundays and had an epic playoff battle in 2009 when Pittsburgh defeated Washington in seven games during the conference semifinals on its way to winning the Stanley Cup. Now that the two teams (just a four-hour drive apart) are in the same division and will play each other four times this season – including a home-and-home series on March 10-11 – it could become even more heated.
Pittsburgh and Washington developed such a strong rivalry the last few years because of star power. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, while the Capitals have Alex Ovechkin. They are the three biggest superstars in the league and have been battling for individual honors (in addition to team glory in their playoff series) starting when Crosby and Ovechkin broke into the NHL during the 2005-06 season. It’s always exciting to watch when they all go head-to-head.
The Penguins-Capitals rivalry flared up in the '90s when the two teams met seven times in 11 years – with Pittsburgh winning in six of those series. That hatred has been carried over during the Ovechkin-Crosby/Malkin era. And it should only get hotter as the teams enter the same division.
Pittsburgh’s rivalry with Carolina may not be as developed as it is with Washington, but it could get there. If it does, we’d bet it’s because of the Jordan Staal – Brandon Sutter trade.
Staal, who played his first six NHL seasons with Pittsburgh, was a key member of the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup championship team and was part of the successful three-center model with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But Staal wanted to play with his brother Eric, so the Penguins traded Jordan to Carolina at the 2012 NHL Draft for Sutter and prospects Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot. Staal signed a 10-year, $60-million deal with the Hurricanes a few days later.
Staal came to Pittsburgh just once in his first season with Pittsburgh, in the final game of the regular season. The sellout crowd at CONSOL Energy Center gave him an extended standing ovation as a tribute played on the video board, and Staal was emotional as he stood up and acknowledged the fans he had played in front of for his first six seasons. But now that that’s over and done with, don’t expect things to remain as friendly and cordial as they are now. Staal is an important part of Penguins history, but not their present or future. He’s a competitive guy, and the Hurricanes expect a lot from him. He’ll want to do everything he can to lead his team to success in the future, including beating his former team whenever possible.
Realignment doesn’t just affect the regular season; it affects the postseason as well. The playoffs are now division-based and with an added wild-card system.
The number of total playoff spots, 16, remains the same – eight for each conference. That means the Western Conference will have 14 teams competing for eight playoff spots, while the Eastern Conference will have 16 teams competing for eight playoff spots. It will likely end up being a tighter race for Pittsburgh and the rest of the Eastern Conference.
The top three teams in the Metropolitan Division and the top three teams from the Atlantic Division will fill the first six spots. The remaining two spots (Nos. 7 and 8) will be filled by the wild-card teams, who are the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference based on regular-season points and regardless of division.
That means the Metropolitan Division could send five teams to the playoffs while the Atlantic sends three; or vice versa. Or they could each send four. Regardless, the playoffs are now heavily based on divisional standings while before, only the division winner got a guaranteed spot in the playoffs.
NHL.com explained the seeding best…
“The seeding of the wild-card teams within each divisional playoff will be determined on the basis of regular-season points. The division winner with the most points in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the fewest points; the division winner with the second-most points in the conference will play the wild-card team with the second fewest points.. The teams finishing second and third in each division will play in the first round of the playoffs. The winners of each series will play for berths in the conference championship series.”
So while the wildcard system makes it possible to play a team in the opening round of the playoffs outside of the division, it’s more likely that teams will be playing the first two rounds against divisional foes – and we’ve seen first-hand the last few years just how intense that can be.