One of the many consequences from the prolonged NHL lockout was the elimination of inter-conference games on the regular season schedule. Now, with only 48 games on each team’s schedule, the fight to the Stanley Cup playoffs is somehow more fast and furious than usual and taking place in the smaller rooms of your own conference and division. That gives more weight to each game, especially when scheduling quirks also create tightly-batched matchups between conference foes. For instance, the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ current nine-game winning streak includes two wins last week against the contending Boston Bruins. Sidney Crosby has led the Pens, minus injured co-star (and reigning league MVP) Evgeni Malkin, to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. They host a couple of big games at home this week versus rivals Washington and Philadelphia, both of whom are scrambling to make it into the eight-team playoff picture before their shorter amount of time runs out.
In the Western Conference, both the Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks have been particularly strong in their last ten games to top the other two divisions not led by the once-streaking Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild, led by native-son Zach Parise who signed a huge deal in the off-season and left behind the New Jersey Devils, are tied with the Vancouver Canucks for the Northwest Division lead. While neither team has point totals approaching the more heralded teams in Chicago or Anaheim, every division winner is guaranteed a top-three playoff seed and a definite advantage on the road to the Stanley Cup. Minnesota and Anaheim both play the Detroit Red Wings this week, a perennial power that should help them gauge if they’re truly ready for a playoff run. Check out the tickets to this week’s hottest games and divisional contests as these teams set their sights on a Stanley Cup playoff ticket!