The condensed 48-game schedule for the 2012-13 NHL season will only feature in-conference games, which will bring some of the league's greatest rivalries to the forefront because they will now be extra important in the playoff race.
Although the actual schedules for all 30 teams haven't been released yet, TSN's Bob McKenzie has reported the structure that the league will use for the 48-game season.
In a 48-game schedule, there'll be no play between conferences. East plays East and West plays West. But here's the schedule matrix for 48:— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) January 8, 2013
Each team plays: 4 games vs. two Divisional opponents (8); 5 games vs. two divisional opponents (10); 3 games vs 10 Conference rivals (30).— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) January 8, 2013
There has also been some leaked information regarding Opening Night matchups, and it seems like the NHL is trying to have as many rivalries open the year as possible (via CBS Sports), which is a brilliant idea and the best way to bring back the most fans quickly.
Opening Day Jan. 19 games that have been reported: BLUES-WINGS, LEAFS @ HABS, AVS @ WILD, SENS @ JETS. Any others out there?— Eye on Hockey (@EyeOnHockey) January 9, 2013
Also, looks like it'll be Penguins and Flyers in an early start game. Also, Kings will be home to get their rings and raise the banner.— Eye on Hockey (@EyeOnHockey) January 9, 2013
All six divisions should be incredibly competitive this year, which means that a lot of teams will probably be in the playoff hunt much later in the season than they probably would have been if 82 games were played.
If the league is smart (which is a big "if" after the latest lockout), it will schedule a ton of rivalry games at the beginning and end of the season.
The best way to transition into the playoffs would be to have rivalry matchups determining who gets into the 16-team tournament, and who has to start their summer vacation early.
If the NHL gets the schedule right, fans could come back in huge numbers, which would help make up for some of the revenue lost during the lockout.
With the schedule including all conference games, and with many of them being against division opponents, beating your rivals will be crucial to every team's chances of making the playoffs. If teams struggle against their division rivals, securing a playoff spot will be quite challenging.
Teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers cannot go winless versus top division rivals again and expect to have a successful season in a 48-game schedule—the Leafs were 0-6 vs. Bruins last year, and the Flyers were 0-6 vs. Rangers.
The Northeast Division, in particular, should be much more exciting this season. Only the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators made the playoffs in 2011-12, and disappointing seasons from the Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens and the Leafs ruined some of the rivalry excitement.
This year promises to be quite different with the Sabres, Canadiens and Leafs making some good improvements during the offseason, in addition to returning some players who were injured last season.
Almost every night, there should be at least one rivalry game on television for hockey fans to enjoy. Teams won't go very long without playing a rival, whether it's a divisional one or not.
It's not often that we see playoff-like atmospheres in regular season games, but with rivalries having more importance than normal due to the shorter schedule, there will be extra motivation for teams to bring their "A" game to the rink each night.
This is great for the NHL because the best way to win over fans who are mad about the lockout is to give them great hockey, and the best way to provide intense, exciting hockey is to schedule a lot of rivalry games.
Perhaps more than any other sport, the NHL thrives off of its best rivalries. Since these types of games will take place more frequently than normal in a 48-game schedule, the 2012-13 season should be one of the most exciting seasons ever.