NHL's latest realignment proposal will intensify rivalries

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NHL's latest realignment proposal will intensify rivalries

Be prepared to hear the words “Flyers” and “wild card” in the same sentence.

The NHL and NHLPA are working on a proposed realignment plan that would keep the current two-conference model but split those conferences -- Eastern and Western -- into just two divisions. The top three teams from each division would qualify for the playoffs, while two wild cards teams from each conference would be introduced into the league’s new playoff format.

Unless the league expands by two more teams, the Flyers (and every other team in the proposed Eastern Conference) will be at a competitive disadvantage from their Western Conference counterparts. Under the proposal, the East would be a 16-team conference, co-opting Detroit and Columbus from the 14-team West.

The current Atlantic Division would adopt three new members -- the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets -- to form a new seven-team division, with the top three teams receiving automatic playoffs bids. Using last season as an example, the Rangers would have been the No. 1 seed, the Penguins the No. 2 seed and the Flyers the No. 3 seed.

The No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in each division would always play one another in the opening round of the playoffs and it’s practical to think that the two Eastern Conference wild-card spots could both come out of the Atlantic Division. However, assuming the point totals were identical, the last time the Atlantic Division could have produced five playoff teams under this model would have been the 2008-09 season. In this scenario, it’s inevitable that one wild-card team will have to start a first-round series against a Central Division team (i.e. Detroit, Boston).

All of the above requires approval from the NHLPA and the NHL’s Board of Governors, but the proposed realignment appears to have eased the travel concerns the players had when they shot down the previous four-conference plan a year ago.

But what does it mean for the Flyers? It seems the hatred between the Flyers and their divisional rivals -- specifically, the Penguins -- will only intensify when the postseason rolls around. Using the point totals from the previous five seasons and assuming the Red Wings/Blue Jackets finish with very similar point totals, here’s how the Flyers would have fared over the past five years:

2011-2012: Third in the Atlantic Division, would have played Pittsburgh in the first round (no different)

2010-2011: Second in the Atlantic Division qualifier, would have played Pittsburgh in the first round instead of Buffalo

2009-2010: Second wild-card team, would have played Washington in the first round instead of New Jersey

2008-2009: First wild-card team, would have played New Jersey in the first round instead of Pittsburgh

2007-2008: First wild-card team, would have played Pittsburgh in the first round instead of Washington

Flyers focused on actual game instead of Stadium Series event

Flyers focused on actual game instead of Stadium Series event

VOORHEES, N.J. -- The toughest challenge for the Flyers this weekend might be themselves.

They’re playing the Pittsburgh Penguins outdoors on Saturday as part of the NHL’s Stadium Series event. That should be a big deal.

Yet, given their circumstances right now, how can they possibly enjoy the moment?

Maybe had this game been played in early January, before the team hit a crisis point in the standings, and was winning, it would be easier to relax.

The fact is, the Flyers have lost seven of their last 10 games, are drifting as the 11th team in the Eastern Conference, and the second wild card they held for so long seems far from their reach.

Tough to have fun and soak up the atmosphere when there’s so much pressure to start making up ground in the playoff hunt.

“Yeah, we’re there to have two points,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said Thursday. “If this was earlier in the season, we could take it in a bit more, but it’s all business for us right now. It’s just playing.”

That attitude extends right up to coach Dave Hakstol, who didn’t break a smile when talking about what’s really important here.

His team is desperate for points. There are 22 games left in the regular season and 19 are against Eastern Conference opponents.

The Flyers need to win a bunch of games and get hot like they did last season in March if they are going to recapture a wild-card berth.

“Honestly, it’s business first,” Hakstol said. “There is something to the event and certainly something important with family and the type of event it is. But, let’s be honest. Right now, it’s business first. That’s what our focus will be.

“Points. Simple as that. It’s two points. We need the two points and it’s a road game and it happens to be in an event-type situation.

“So we’ve got to make sure we handle all of that in terms of our preparation. But the bottom line is it comes down to the two points that are at stake on Saturday night.”

Michal Neuvirth will make his sixth consecutive start in goal for the Flyers. He was a backup to Semyon Varlamov at Heinz Field during the 2011 Winter Classic as a member of the Washington Capitals against Pittsburgh.

“We’ve got to focus on the game,” Neuvirth said. “There is going to be a lot of distractions. Lot of families and friends in town. But we’re gonna go there and it’s all about business and trying to get the two points.”

Hakstol is only slightly concerned about the hype taking away from the players’ focus. If the Flyers were coming into this game on a win streak, he and his players wouldn’t be quite as uptight as they are right now.

You can cut the tension in the Flyers' dressing room these days with a skate blade.

“You need a little mental attention to detail there,” Hakstol said. “That’s what it is. We’re in that mold. I don’t think that’s a big hump to overcome. I think we’ll be OK.”

Heinz Field holds 68,000 people. The NHL expects 60,000 in attendance. Regardless, it will be the largest crowd ever to witness a Flyers game.

“It’s more exciting and a must-win for us,” said Michael Raffl, who played outdoors once in Europe. “A huge game no matter where we would have played it. We could play it at Skate Zone and we’d be excited.”

Giroux said it will be “weird” being on the ice because his past experiences in outdoor games saw him drown out the fans as much as possible. Yet he admitted the sheer number of fans this time might make that difficult to do.

“It’s pretty exciting to play in the Steelers' stadium,” he said. “Playing against Pittsburgh, it should be a great game.”

Best of NHL: Patrick Kane hat trick lifts Blackhawks over Coyotes

Best of NHL: Patrick Kane hat trick lifts Blackhawks over Coyotes

CHICAGO -- Patrick Kane scored three goals for his third career hat trick to lead the surging Chicago Blackhawks past the Arizona Coyotes 6-3 on Thursday night for their third straight win and eighth in nine games.

Kane has 23 goals to lead Chicago, which closed within three points behind first-place Minnesota in the Central Division and Western Conference.

Rookies Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman each had a goal and assist. Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival scored his first goal of the season in his first game since Jan. 15.

Chicago captain Jonathan Toews added two assists to extend his points scoring streak to five games and increase his output to 22 points in his past 13.

Jakob Chychrun, Ryan White and Radim Vrbata scored for the Coyotes. Chychrun and Vrbata each scored for the second straight game (see full recap).

Rangers outlast Maple Leafs in shootout
TORONTO -- Mika Zibanejad scored the shootout winner and the New York Rangers continued a strong February with a 2-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Henrik Lundqvist made 32 saves and J.T. Miller scored the game-tying goal in the third period for the Rangers, who improved to 8-1-1 this month.

New York moved into third place in the Metropolitan Division with 80 points.

Connor Brown scored for Toronto, which fell to 1-7 in shootouts this season. Frederik Andersen had a stellar performance in defeat with 37 saves.

The Leafs hold the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division (68 points), two points back of Ottawa (70) and four back of Montreal (see full recap).

Islanders shut out Canadiens
MONTREAL -- Rookie Anthony Beauvillier scored in the first period, Thomas Greiss made 24 saves, and the New York Islanders beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-0 Thursday night.

Anders Lee scored in the second period and John Tavares added an empty-netter in the final minute to seal the Islanders' third straight win. New York has won the first two games on a crucial nine-game road swing and improved to 12-4-2 since interim coach Doug Weight replaced the fired Jack Capuano.

Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson each had two assists, and Greiss got his third shutout of the season.

Carey Price finished with 21 saves as the Canadiens lost coach Claude Julien's 1,000th NHL game. Montreal is 1-2-0 since Julien replaced Michel Therrien last week and has totaled just 14 goals while going 2-7-1 in the last 10 games, including four shutouts (see full recap).