The 2013-14 season marks the start of new divisions, a new schedule matrix and a new playoff format for the NHL.
For the Buffalo Sabres, it means much more travel and a decidedly tougher road to end their postseason drought.
For the first time in 14 years, the Sabres will be playing every team in the league at least once at home and once on the road. In recent years, the Sabres have traveled to only one Western Conference division and, in fact, didn’t travel west of St. Louis as recently as the 2006-07 season.
The Sabres are now in the Atlantic Division with their four former Northeast Division rivals (Toronto, Montreal, Boston and Ottawa), Florida, Tampa Bay and Detroit.
The Red Wings are the major addition, as they cross over from the Western Conference after 32 years on the other side of the league.
They have made the playoffs 22 straight years and 27 of the last 29, snapping a 42-year Stanley Cup drought by winning it in 1997. They then added Cups in 1998, 2002 and 2008 and lost in Game Seven of the final to Pittsburgh in 2009.
Detroit has had 12 straight full seasons of at least 100 points and nearly upset eventual Cup champion Chicago last year, blowing a 3-1 lead in the West semifinals and eventually losing Game Seven in overtime.
“Getting to play them the amount of times that I have, I think it’s exciting,” said winger Steve Ott, who grew up as a Wings fan in Windsor, Ont., and met them regularly when he played in Dallas. “Why not have a packed division where you play Detroit, play Toronto that you have such a rivalry with, play Boston, play Montreal and Ottawa?
“You’re talking one of the best divisions to play in. I personally love it and I know we’re all looking forward to it.”
The Sabres get right to their new division rival with Wednesday’s opener, a nationally televised game from Joe Louis Arena. They also travel there April 4. The Wings come to Buffalo on Nov. 24, their first time here since Dec. 2, 2011, and April 8.
The Atlantic Division is the fourth alignment for the Sabres as they begin their 43rd season. They were in the East for their first four seasons, starting in 1970, were in the Adams Division for 19 seasons and have spent the last 19 in the Northeast. The Sabres play five times against Boston (three at home) and Toronto (two at home), and four times against the other Atlantic foes.
The NHL has gone from six divisions to four in a schedule and playoff format the league says it will keep for at least the next three years.
The Eastern Conference consists of the Atlantic Division and the Metropolitan Division (Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington).
The Western Conference consists of the Central Division (Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg) and the Pacific Division (Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver).
A refresher on the new playoff format that was announced over the summer:
• As in the past, eight teams from each conference qualify for the postseason but they are no longer ranked 1-8. The top three teams in each division qualify, and the final two spots in each conference are filled by wild cards, regardless of division.
• The wild cards will be the next two highest point totals from teams that finish fourth or fifth in their divisions. So it’s possible a conference can have five playoff teams from one division and just three from the other.
• In the first round, the division winner with the most regular-season points in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the fewest points. The other division winner meets the wild-card team with the second-fewest points. The teams finishing second and third in each of the divisions will also meet.
• The surviving teams are then seeded 1-4 for the conference semifinals, with winners meeting in the conference finals. As in the past, the conference champions meet in the Stanley Cup final.
Unlike last year’s lockout compacted season, the Sabres will have normal amounts of rest time between games. Where practice time was limited last year, there will be breaks between games like there used to be with an 82-game slate. And the Sabres are down to just 13 back-to-backs this season after leading the league during each of the last two full campaigns.
“It’s practice time and rest time,” said winger Thomas Vanek. “We’re going from less back-to-backs where it’s tough to travel and play the next day. To have the day in between helps us to focus on certain things we need to work on, and also, if guys are banged up, you can rest and get ready for the next game.”
More new schedule highlights:
• October homecomings: Two Monday night games in October that would normally be complete ho-hum affairs now have plenty of circles on fans’ calendars. The Oct. 14 visit by Minnesota will mark the return of former captain Jason Pominville, and then comes Oct. 28, when the Dallas Stars hit town and Lindy Ruff will be behind the visitors bench at First Niagara Center for the first time since he was fired in February.
“You thought that he was going to stay here forever but life changes all the time,” said Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder, who played eight years under Ruff before leaving in 2010 and then returning via trade in July. “There was a change, and Lindy was the change this time. He had an exceptional run when I was here. I think he’s a great coach.
“Hats off to him. He did a great job for this team and this community. It’s going to be weird, but I think it’s going to be more for him than for anyone else.”
The Sabres play Ruff in Dallas on March 3.
• A champion’s homecoming: South Buffalo native Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks come to town on March 9. It will be Kane’s third career game in his hometown and his first since Oct. 11, 2010 – the longest absence from First Niagara Center by any Western Conference team.
• Long time, no see: The Sabres will play the Los Angeles Kings in Staples Center on Nov. 7, and it will be their first game there since a 4-3 shootout loss on Jan. 21, 2010. That’s their longest absence from a Western rink.
The last “road” game against the Kings was played on Oct. 8, 2011, in Berlin, Germany, as part of the teams’ trip to the NHL Premiere Series in Europe.
• Worst trip: The Sabres play 10 of their 14 games in March on the road and have a brutal five-game trip late in the month while the NCAA basketball tournament takes over their home rink. It starts March 18 in Calgary, heads to Edmonton on March 20 and Vancouver on March 23 before coming all the way back to Montreal on March 25 and wrapping up March 27 in Nashville.
• Home cooking: The Sabres never play more than three straight games at the FNC, although they do get to have a trio of home games without a trip out of town on five occasions.