Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - After a frustrating labor squabble robbed NHL fans of almost half a season in 2013, it's good to have October hockey back.
The Chicago Blackhawks dominated the lockout-shortened campaign pretty much from start to finish and claimed their second Stanley Cup title in four years. However, it's been a long time since the NHL had a repeat champion (Detroit in 1997 and '98), so it's a little early to bring up the dynasty conversation in Chicago.
Like the rest of the NHL, the Blackhawks also find themselves surrounded by new divisional foes thanks to the league's realignment plan for this season. Instead of six divisions spread out over the Eastern and Western Conferences, the NHL is now split into four divisions with the Atlantic and Metropolitan in the East and the Central and Pacific out West.
The top three clubs from each division will earn automatic bids to the playoffs, while wild card spots account for the remaining two postseason spots in each conference. The second- and third-place teams from each division will meet in the first round of the playoffs. The remaining opening-round series will feature one matchup between the division winner with the most points against the wild card with the lowest point total and another featuring the other division winner and wild card representative.
The 2013-14 NHL season also brings with it the arrival of hybrid icing, replacing the touch-icing system that has been in place since 1937. Hybrid icing gives a linesman the choice to either blow the play dead and call for an automatic icing or let the race for the puck to continue, depending on the situation. Basically, it gives the official the option of making a judgment call in the interest of player safety.
With safety and concussion concerns at an all-time high, the league hopes the new rule cuts down on some of the violent collisions that occur when players race toward the puck during an icing situation.
With realignment and hybrid icing covered, it's time to make some predictions on which teams are bound for the playoffs. Here it goes:
Boston Bruins (champion)
Detroit Red Wings (automatic bid)
Ottawa Senators (automatic bid)
Pittsburgh Penguins (champion)
New York Rangers (automatic bid)
Washington Capitals (automatic bid)
EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Ottawa Senators
The Senators were bounced out in the second round of the playoffs by Pittsburgh last spring, but that was with superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson playing at less than 100 percent. Ottawa lost longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson after he signed with new divisional rival Detroit this summer, but the club added sniper Bobby Ryan to more than make up for Alfie's departure.
The club is expertly led by head coach Paul MacLean, who gets his charges to play a cohesive defensive style in front of the steady goaltending of Craig Anderson.
Although the Sens looked overmatched against Pittsburgh in the postseason, this is a young team with its best years ahead of it. Look for the Sens to start cashing in on their potential in 2013-14.
St. Louis Blues (champion)
Chicago Blackhawks (automatic bid)
Minnesota Wild (automatic bid)
Los Angeles Kings (champion)
Vancouver Canucks (automatic bid)
San Jose Sharks (automatic bid)
WESTERN CONFERENCE/STANLEY CUP CHAMPION: Los Angeles Kings
The Kings followed up their surprising, yet dominant, run to a championship in 2012 with a trip to the Western Conference finals last spring. The Blackhawks ousted L.A. in five games before beating Boston in the Stanley Cup Finals, but the Kings seem poised to make another run at a title.
Of course, Chicago figures to be an obstacle for the Kings yet again, but this time it's the Blackhawks who will need to battle the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover. L.A. still has most of its pieces from the championship season on its roster, and with the pressure of repeating no longer an issue, the club is once again a good bet to prove itself title-worthy.