While the dregs of each NHL conference meekly fight it out in their respective playoff bubbles, the NHL's Central and Atlantic Divisions are about to pull off something that one division manages nearly every season, but two divisions have managed only one time in the past 10 seasons.
Every year but one since the NHL lockout, and every year but two since the NHL began awarding points for losing in overtime, one NHL division has sent four of its five teams to the playoffs.
But only in 2008-09 did two divisions send four teams each, and that's what's likely to happen again in 2011-12, as the Central and Atlantic should represent half of the 16-team playoff field. In 2008-09, it was also the Atlantic and Central doing the honors, as a late surge by the St. Louis Blues helped them squeak into the Western Conference postseason.
This year the Central and Atlantic powers are a bit more comfortable: The Atlantic's fourth-place New Jersey Devils are nine points above the drop zone in the East, while the Central's fourth-place Chicago Blackhawks are five points above the cluster of also-rans in the West.
Such success makes for difficult playoff challenges, however. Thanks to the NHL giving division winners the top three seeds, teams that fail to take the Central and Atlantic crowns are likely to draw fourth and fifth seeds that have them playing each other in a tough first-round matchup.
In fact, since the lockout this scenario has been almost old hat for the Atlantic teams. They've sent four teams to the playoffs three times, and this year should be their fourth:
Divisions Sending Four Teams To NHL Playoffs
- 2010-11: Pacific Division (Dallas Stars were the lone team to miss)
- 2009-10: Northeast Division (Toronto Maple Leafs missed)
- 2008-09: Atlantic Division (New York Islanders), Central Division (Nashville Predators)
- 2007-08: Atlantic Division (New York Islanders missed)
- 2006-07: Atlantic Division (Philadelphia Flyers missed)
- 2005-06: None
- 2004-05: [Lockout cancels season. Shootouts added when play resumes.]
- 2003-04: Northeast Division (Buffalo Sabres missed)
- 2002-03: Northwest Division (Calgary Flames missed)
- 2001-02: Northeast Division (Buffalo Sabres missed)
- 2000-01: None
- 1999-00: Pacific Division (Mighty Ducks of Anaheim missed)