THE NHL'S revamped regular-season schedule calls for each team to play its divisional opponents eight times apiece, up from six times in 2003-04. That move--meant to sharpen rivalries--has helped Central Division powers Detroit (32-12-3 through Sunday) and Nashville (29-12-6) amass the best records in the Western Conference by fattening up on Chicago, Columbus and St. Louis, by far the three weakest teams in the West. (Detroit is 13-1 against those teams; Nashville is 12-1.)
It's a different story in the Northwest Division, where only five points separated first-place Calgary and fourth-place Edmonton; even last-place Minnesota was a respectable 23-21-4. Says left wing Alex Tanguay of Colorado, which is in the scrum at the top with Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton, "We knew coming into the season that our division would be a lot tighter than the rest of the conference."
The fact that the schedule calls for only 10 interconference games (each Western team plays a home-and-home against each member of a designated Eastern division) has led some in the game to fret that top-draw teams such as Philadelphia and the New York Rangers, as well as young stars such as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, will visit each Western city only once every three years.
Otherwise, the new schedule is a hit. "When you play division games, you get a true read on your team," says Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock. "The games are more intense, more emotional." Players applaud the reduced travel--as do the bean counters; Vancouver, for example, expects to spend 25% less on travel than it did in 2003-04--and even those suffering in the ultracompetitive division are optimistic that their plight may yield some benefits come spring. "Having so many good teams in our division keeps us sharper mentally," says Colorado right wing Ian Laperriere. "It keeps us in playoff mode all year long. Every game is big."