When it comes right down to it, says Washington Capitals center Dave Poulin, the new alignment in the National Hockey League isn't going to make any difference -- until the last day of the regular season.
That's when the most important part of the new NHL realignment package goes into effect. That's when the best eight teams in each of the two new conferences -- instead of the top four in each division -- clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"The schedule doesn't break a lot differently," Poulin said. "It's still within your division the most games, within your conference second most. What's going to change is that five teams from one division may make the playoffs -- then you're going to hear about it from the division that only has three."
With the addition of two expansion teams this season and five over the past three years, the NHL was pushed into realignment this year, and with realignment has come this new method for qualifying for postseason, which is based on overall conference standings.
In the new alignment:
* Division names have been changed to have geographic meaning. The Patrick is now the Atlantic, the Adams is the Northeast, the Norris Division is the Central and the Smythe is the Pacific.
* Three teams change divisions. Winnipeg goes to the Central from the Pacific; Tampa Bay moves to the Atlantic from the Central; and Pittsburgh moves to the Northeast from the Atlantic.
* The new franchise in Anaheim, the Mighty Ducks, joins the Pacific Division; the Florida Panthers are in the Atlantic.
* Western Conference teams will play six games against each of five divisional opponents; four games against each of six teams in the other division of the Western Conference; two games against each of 14 teams in the Eastern Conference and two neutral-site games.
* Eastern Conference teams will play five games against each of six divisional opponents; four games against each of seven teams in the other division of the Eastern Conference; two games against each of 12 teams in the Western Conference and two neutral-site games.
* At the end of the regular season, the top eight teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs and, like in the NBA, the division champions will be seeded first and second in each conference playoff draw and are assured home-ice advantage in the first two playoff rounds. The eventual conference champions will meet in the Stanley Cup Finals.
"In my opinion, the Patrick Division was the best overall last year," said NHL vice president Brian Burke, who was the general manager of the Hartford Whalers last season. "I think the teams in that division play high-octane hockey every night and I think the teams from the former Adams Division are in for a shock. They'll find they're going to have a much tougher time of it when it comes to making postseason."
CHANGING THE RULES
The following are the major rules changes in the NHL this season:
High stick: A goal scored by an attacking player who strikes the puck with his stick while carrying his stick above the crossbar will not be allowed, unless a defending player puts the puck in his own net. Last year, the goal was not allowed if the player struck the puck while carrying his stick above his shoulders.
Team captains: If a team captain is injured and unable to play, the coach may appoint three assistant (alternate) captains. Previously, the coach had to appoint another captain and two assistant captains.
Faceoffs: If opposing centers are both ready for the faceoff, and a winger jumps into the faceoff circle before the puck is dropped, the center of the offending winger will be ejected from the faceoff circle. This rule has been experimented with during the preseason and a decision on whether to put it in effect will be made after the preseason games are complete and prior to the beginning of the regular season Tuesday. The rule is designed to speed up play.