NEW YORK – Now that the NHL knows for sure it will take a break for next year’s Sochi Games, the league has released its long-awaited schedule that features realignment and a slew of new division names and rivals.
Shortly after the NHL said Friday it would send its players to the Olympics for the fifth straight time, it announced its 1,230-game regular-season slate. The season will be put on hold for 2½ weeks in February to accommodate the 2014 Games in Russia.
Opening night Oct. 1 will feature the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks hosting Washington. The regular season concludes April 13, with the playoffs beginning three days later.
The league’s four new divisions will be called Metropolitan and Atlantic in the Eastern Conference, and Central and Pacific in the West. No teams in what was the Atlantic Division are in the new group of that name.
The Western Conference is made up of two seven-team divisions, while the Eastern Conference has two eight-team groupings.
The Metropolitan Division consists of the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets, who have moved from the West to the East.
The Atlantic is made up of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Detroit has also shifted from the West to the East.
The Central includes the Winnipeg Jets, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues. The Pacific is comprised of the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks.
Along with the Blackhawks raising their second title banner in four years, opening night will feature Toronto visiting Montreal in the first game of the season.
The annual Winter Classic, to be played on New Year’s Day at Michigan Stadium between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings, won’t be alone in the great outdoors. This season it is just one of six games to be staged in the elements.
A four-game NHL Stadium Series will feature Southern California rivals Anaheim and Los Angeles facing off in Dodger Stadium Jan. 25. The Rangers will take on their local rivals, the Devils and Islanders, in a pair of games at Yankee Stadium three days apart. First up will be the Rangers and Devils in a Jan. 26 matinee, followed by the Rangers and Islanders in prime time Jan. 29.
The last will be a matchup between the Penguins and Blackhawks at Soldier Field, the home of the Chicago Bears, March 1 at night. The annual Heritage Classic will be in Vancouver on March 2 when the Canucks host the Ottawa Senators.
That will be just four days after the NHL returns from the Olympic break that runs from Feb. 9-25.
The schedule will have quite a different look this time around. Every team is slated to meet every other club both home and away, with new rivalries developing in the revamped divisions after franchises changed conferences to make things more balanced geographically.
Travel for Columbus and Detroit will be a whole lot easier now that they are with Eastern time zone teams instead of lots of trips out West.
Western teams will mostly play 29 games within their division: five games against five teams and four games versus one team, with those matchups rotated yearly. Those clubs will play 21 games against Western teams not in their division and 32 games against the 16 Eastern teams to reach a total of 82.
In the East, clubs will play five games against two teams in the division and four games against five teams to make up 30 games of the schedule. Within the conference, teams will play three games against every team in the opposite division for a total of 24 games. The other 28 games will be played against the West.
Instead of the top eight teams in each conference qualifying for the playoffs, the NHL is returning to a format in which divisional position will determine which teams advance to the postseason for the first time since 1993.
The top three teams in each division will secure playoff spots, and each conference will add two wild-card teams to make up the 16-team tournament. The wild-card teams will be determined by the next two highest-placed teams within the conference. This format will be in place at least through the 2015-16 season.
Training camps will open Sept. 11, and the preseason schedule will begin two days later.