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Pens Approve of New NHL Conference Format

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins are going back to the future. At least, that’s sort of how the NHL’s new realignment and playoff format is shaping up following Monday evening’s 26-4 vote by the Board of Governors in approving a new four-conference alignment, pending input from the NHL Players’ Association.

The Penguins will play in a seven-team Conference with the Atlantic Division remaining completely intact, but with the addition of two teams.

Carolina and Washington will join current Atlantic Division teams New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for one of the new four conferences. In a historical sense, that would be the old Patrick Division plus one (Carolina).

Alex Ovechkin (pictured) and the Washington Capitals will join Penguins in new conference alignment
“In terms of our conference, there are some rivalries that are preserved and added to with adding Washington into that mix,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “The one area for us was being with our rivals and you still see that with the conference we’re in.”

The Penguins will play their conferences teams six times (three at home and three on the road) and every other NHL team outside their conference twice (home and road). That means every NHL team will visit CONSOL Energy Center and the Penguins will visit every NHL rink at least once.

“From the fans' perspective, I think it’s good that everybody gets to see Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin every year rather than every other year for those West Coast teams,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “If you’re a fan you want to see all those guys. I think the players enjoy playing in every building every year, not just every other year. That was a win for the players’ side.”

“A balanced schedule will even out some of the travel,” forward Steve Sullivan said. “I think it’s important for the fans to see every single team come into your arena. I think a balanced schedule was needed.”

In the NHL’s new playoff format, the top four teams from each conference will qualify for the postseason. Those four teams will have to battle each other for the conference championship in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs – again, reminiscent of the Patrick Division structure.

The Penguins will be in a highly competitive conference with quality teams fighting for those four playoff spots. And once the teams make the playoffs, playing against each other will only intensify the already incendiary rivalries.

“It’s going to be a good conference,” forward Chris Kunitz said. “Ever since I’ve been here we’ve had a tough go in the playoffs. We’ve had a few teams every year that have been there. The four teams making it out of those seven will be four good teams.”

“I think you’ll see those (rivalries) heightened since you’ll be playing in your conference for the first two rounds of the playoffs,” Bylsma said. “You’re going to see a lot of the same matchups and rivalries happening in close proximity in the playoffs. That’s going to add for some pretty entertaining and exciting postseason rivalry matchups.”

The Pens-Flyers rivalry remains intact in new conference alignment
“When I was growing up that was the way it was with the Smythe Division,” Calgary native Craig Adams said. “It was always Calgary-Edmonton, Calgary-Vancouver. It’s exciting for the fans. A lot of the rivalries we have today go back to those days when you always played those teams in the playoffs.”

The NHL has yet to determine how the playoffs will operate once the four conference champions have been decided. One of the possibilities is to reseed those four conference champions by points in the standings. If that were to happen then you could possibly have an “East vs. West” scenario in the semifinals and an “East vs. East” or “West vs. West” Stanley Cup Final.

Though the players didn’t seem to mind that format, some wished to see something in the more traditional sense with facing a same-sided coast in the semifinals and “East vs. West” in the Cup Final.

“The only thing I’d be concerned with is after the first two rounds keeping the two ‘Eastern’ conferences together,” Adams said. “I would prefer that because otherwise you could have a semifinal of Pittsburgh-San Jose, Winnipeg-Florida. I don’t know how much sense that makes in the semifinals. We’ll see, it hasn’t been decided yet.”

“I still like the East vs. West Stanley Cup Final,” Sullivan said. “Hopefully, they can be creative and come up with an idea so that we can keep that and look forward to a battle of that sort.”

But as defenseman Brooks Orpik pointed out, however it works itself out the players won’t be too concerned. Hockey players are happy as long as there is a puck and a sheet of ice.

“They tell us what conference we’re in and we go out and do the same thing,” he said. “For players, we just like to play.”

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