With less than a month to go before the Buffalo Sabres’ first preseason game on Sunday, Sept. 15 in Montreal, now’s probably a good time for a reminder about the NHL’s realignment plan, which takes effect this season.
A total of 16 teams will play in the Eastern Conference, and 14 will comprise the Western Conference. Each conference now has two divisions, down by one from previous years.
The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets join the Eastern Conference, and the Red Wings will look to extend their playoff streak to 23 straight seasons as they make themselves comfortable in the Sabres’ division. The newly christened Atlantic Division now features Buffalo, Detroit, Boston, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto.
Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington will play in the other division in the East, the Metropolitan Division.
Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver will now be in the Pacific Division; while the Central Division will consist of Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg. The Jets make the logical move out West after spending the last two seasons in the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division following their relocation from Atlanta.
The catch now is that finishing in the top eight of the conference might not be enough to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Here’s how the NHL describes the new format:
“The Stanley Cup Playoffs have a new division-based format. Playoff qualification will be primarily Division-based, with the top three finishers in each Division qualifying for the first 12 spots in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (and the first three "seeds" in each Division).
The two additional playoff spots in each Conference, designated as “Wild Cards,” will be awarded to the next two highest-placed finishers in each Conference, ranked on the basis of regular-season points and regardless of Division.
The League will play under this new alignment and playoff system for a minimum of three seasons, through the 2015-16 NHL season.”
And as Dan Rosen of NHL.com explains:“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.
The winners of the conference championships advance to the Stanley Cup Final.”
As for the 2013-14 schedule, Buffalo will play their divisional opponents at least four times each and the other teams in the conference three times each. They’ll face off against teams in the Western Conference once at home and once on the road, so they’ll play in every arena this year. It’s the first time that’ll happen League-wide since the 1997-98 season.
To complete the full 82-game slate, Buffalo has five games scheduled against both the Maple Leafs (two at home, three in Toronto) and the Bruins (three at home, two in Boston). Next year, the Sabres will play two different teams in the division an extra time.