The Waiting Ends: Minnesota's 2013-14 Schedule Released

And on the third day, the NHL makes peace with the Olympics.

The league reached an agreement Friday with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) to send its players to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Olympics. Subsequently, the 2013-2014 schedule that the NHL had been sitting upon also saw the light of the day after two days of waiting.

The full 82 game 2013-14 Minnesota schedule can be found here. The team opens the season October 3rd against Los Angeles at the Xcel Energy Center. More on the division names, realignment, Wild schedule highlights this year among others after the jump.

Welcome to the Central Division Minnesota!  

The Wild join the Central as part of league-wide realignment for 2013-14. After spending its entire existence in the Northwest Division with 3 Western Canadian teams and Colorado, Minnesota will now be in a division with teams much closer. Three teams in the new Central - Winnipeg, Chicago and St. Louis - are closer to St. Paul than former Northwest Division foe Vancouver is combined.

Even trips to new division opponents Dallas and Nashville are much closer flights than the second-closest Northwest Division team (Calgary). Minnesota will travel 44,443 miles next season, which is only 13K more than the Wild flew in the 48 game Lockout-shortened season. They will still have West Coast trips, but the number of times going through customs go down without two extra BC/AB trips. Winnipeg is the only Canadian team in the new Central Division.

Along with travel going down, playing in a seven-team division with six in the Central Time Zone (MTZ Colorado remains an outlier) has its perks. It took Minnesota until mid-December to play a game inside the Central Time Zone two seasons ago. Now they don't have an 8:00 p.m. CT road start until the end of November.

Starting earlier is better for kids and those productive members of society who want to watch hockey yet have to get up early. Only 14 of the 41 road games this year start after 8:00 p.m. CT. That's down from 15 of 24 road games last year.

Simply put, it's a much better setup than three 9:00 p.m. divisional road starts against a team that is almost the same distance from Minneapolis-St. Paul as Miami.

New Division Names

Anticipated almost as much as the schedule actually being released is the news of what the four new divisions would be named. Besides the Central, they are the Pacific, Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions.

Yep, some team next year will raise a "Metropolitan Division" banner.

Any new name is going to be heckled and seen as bad compared the old historical ones, but having three geographical divisions and one named after large cities makes it stick out. The Metropolitan Division name is strange in a "one of these things does not belong" way.

Even stranger is the fact that the five teams in the old Atlantic Division (the 3 NYC teams, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) are now in the Metropolitan Division. To be fair, it's not like new division foe Columbus (or even Pittsburgh for that matter) is in the Atlantic region with the others (Washington and Carolina). However, neither is Detroit nor any team in the new eight-team Atlantic outside of Boston and the two Florida teams.

Why not let the old guard keep its name and give the more generic "Metropolitan" Division title to Toronto, Montreal, Florida, etc.? That division is the one that makes the least sense geographically anyways. The new Atlantic is essentially three Eastern Canadian teams, three American teams situated around the US-Canada border and two Florida teams that are separated by the rest.

Old Conferences

Both the Eastern and Western Conferences remain mostly intact in the new four division NHL. The Pacific and Central Divisions make up the Western Conference while the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions make up the Eastern Conference.

Not everything stayed the same. Three teams change conferences to create an unbalanced 16-14 East/West configuration. Eastern Time Zone teams Detroit and Columbus join the rest of the time zone in the Eastern Conference by moving from the Central to the Metropolitan and Atlantic, respectively. Winnipeg, meanwhile, goes East to West. The Jets leave the Southeast (where they spent two years keeping Atlanta's place) for the Central.

New Playoff Format

Regardless of the Metropolitan-Atlantic naming snafu, bringing back divisional playoffs is something I'm looking forward to seeing. Division playoffs limit the number of teams the Wild can play in the postseason. Going up against the same teams who are geographically close year in and year out helps brew hatred between fanbases, players...and even the "r" word.

Especially after years of "Minnesota searching for a rivalry" being the team's biggest rivalry. Rivalries are made in the postseason. Having those rivalries exacerbated by playing division foes is something that will help make regular season games more enjoyable.

Still, the new Stanley Cup playoffs aren't as simple as the old Patrick/Adams/Norris/Smythe days where the top 4 teams in each 5/6 team division advanced to 1 v. 4, 2 v. 3 quarterfinals. The days of a bad 4th place team gaming the system and going on a run (*cough* North Stars in 1991 *cough*) will stay in the past. From
The Stanley Cup Playoffs will still consist of 16 teams, eight from each conference, but it will be division-based and a wild-card system has been added.

The top three teams in each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference -- regardless of division -- based on regular-season points. It will be possible for one division to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends three.

The seeding of the wild-card teams within each divisional playoff will be determined by regular-season points. The division winner with the most points in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the fewest points; the division winner with the second-most points in the conference will play the wild-card team with the second-fewest points.

The teams finishing second and third in each division will play in the first round of the playoffs. The winners of each series will play for berths in the conference championship series.
The winners of the conference championships advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
So there are wild cards and crossover games that get in the way of division rivalries. Knowing Minnesota's luck, the Wild would raise a "Pacific Division Playoff Champions" banner prior to a Central Division one. It'd fit in with the ghosts of the North Stars.

Olympic Break

With the NHL, IOC and IIHF agreeing to let players participate in Sochi, the NHL will suspend play during the Olympics. The Wild have a 20 day gap between games from February 6th against Nashville until February 27th when the team makes its lone trip of the season to Edmonton.

Obviously not every Minnesota player gets a break. Those who get the honor of representing their country will head to Russia. For the rest, it's a chance to rest up in a compressed schedule. The Wild play 23 games over the final 46 days (including 7 back-to-backs), which will likely decide its postseason fate.

No Outdoor Games For The Wild...

...but just about everyone else gets one.

There are six outdoor hockey games this season. Last year's canceled Winter Classic between Detroit and Toronto is rescheduled for January 1st in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Four previously announced outdoor games will be part of the Coors Light Stadium Series in late January/early March.
Jan. 25 - Anaheim Ducks vs. Los Angeles Kings - Dodger Stadium
Jan. 26 - New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils - Yankee Stadium
Jan. 29 - New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders - Yankee Stadium
Mar. 1 - Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Chicago Blackhawks - Soldier Field
A sixth game, Ottawa vs. Vancouver at BC Place, will take place March 2nd as the 3rd Heritage Classic.

(All except the Winter Classic and Rangers-Devils game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Net in the United States. The other two will be on NBC. In Canada, CBC will broadcast all six outdoor games.)

Minnesota is likely looking for the 2015 Winter Classic to host. It comes with more prestige than the Stadium Series and even 24/7 on HBO. That would be a great boost to a franchise that needs promotion.

However, it's getting ridiculous that the in the American capital of outdoor hockey there has not been a major outdoor game yet (yet being the key word). The team has done everything else - make the playoffs, sign marquee players, have a major selling point - needed for a Winter Classic, let alone the expanded number of outdoor games. It will pay off locally whenever that day comes. Being 100th in line won't matter

But again like yesterday, waiting is the hardest part. When Los Angeles showcases outdoor hockey first and you've grown up having 4 outdoor rinks within 2 miles, you start to wonder what the point of waiting.

No All-Star Game Either...

...for the second straight year. Does anyone miss it?

National Television

Making the playoffs for the first time since 2008 has its perks.

Minnesota will appear 12 times on NBC Sports Net this season. That's the third highest amount after Pittsburgh (15) and Philadelphia (14) and tied with Chicago and New York Rangers. It's also three more than two seasons ago; the last 82 game schedule.

Oddly enough, the Wild will not be on "Rivalry Wednesday" this year after having two attempts at Jeremy Roenick and Mike Milbury trying to spin long lost Wild rivalries with Chicago (prior to the Blackhawks knocking Minnesota out of the playoffs in the Western Conference Quarterfinals) and Detroit. Minnesota does play both the Blackhawks (Apr. 3) and Red Wings (Mar. 23) on NBCSN, however, neither game is on Wednesday.

Additionally, NHL Network will show six Wild games to markets outside the "State of Hockey."

Games To Watch

There are 82 games to go through with some being better than others. Everyone is going to have their favorite, the "must watch" games. Here are mine in chronological order.

October 3 vs. Los Angeles - Opening night at home against the 2012 Cup winners would be reason enough to make the list. Having Dustin Brown, whose concussing elbow of Jason  Pominville cost Minnesota its trade deadline acquisition down the stretch (and Brown two games after being suspended), return to the Xcel Energy Center makes it that much better.

October 10 vs. Winnipeg and October 12 vs. Dallas - These two games cap the Wild's opening stretch where the team plays four of its first five games at home. They are also the first home games against Central Division teams along with being only the second time that the Jets visit Xcel Energy Center. It will be interesting to see how many Winnipeg fans make the 450 mile drive south to St. Paul.

Also, with the University of Minnesota opening its inaugural Big Ten season by hosting the Ice Breaker tournament at Mariucci Arena October 11-12, those 3 days are going to be a great welcome back to hockey.

October 26 at Chicago - The first time that Minnesota plays the Blackhawks since Game 5 last May. Since then, Chicago went on to win the Stanley Cup. You have to think that the Wild have spent all off-season remembering that and this game at United Center is an early measuring stick prior to the teams heading back to St. Paul two days later.

November 27 at St. Louis - First game against the Blues this season comes right before Thanksgiving. It also starts a stretch of 3 games in 4 days with the Wild playing a home-and-home series against Colorado Friday (at home with the traditional 5 p.m. Black Friday start) and Saturday.

(Prior to that stretch is Minnesota's first trip to Winnipeg since the Wild's dream start in 2011-12 began to unravel at the MTS Center. Zach Bogosian hitting Pierre-Marc Bouchard from behind didn't help either)

December 29 vs. New York Islanders and January 2 vs. Buffalo - The nice thing about playing each Eastern Conference team twice is that it guarantees a home game against every team. This means that Bouchard and Cal Clutterbuck will return with the Islanders.

On the the other side of the New Year, former Golden Gopher Thomas Vanek will have one last opportunity for 18,000 fans to lobby for his services come July.

January 18 vs. Dallas - While the Wild play at home each of the first three Saturdays in January (Jan. 4 vs. Washington and Jan. 11 vs. Colorado are the others), this makes the most sense to be the 2014 Hockey Day Minnesota NHL game. The ties to the North Stars are an excellent touch to the event, which will be hosted by Elk River. Between the HS outdoor games, Minnesota hosting Ohio State in a game rumored to be outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium and the Wild playing the Stars, HDM is a worthy to last year's final UMN-North Dakota WCHA game/Wild season opener.

(Technically Hockey Day Minnesota could be the next weekend with the first-ever Minnesota College Hockey Tournament, but I doubt that's the case given how much FSN has unfortunately ignored non-Gopher teams in the event's history. Plus it'd mean Hockey Day happens with the Wild on the road.)

The January 18th game is also the first of a home-and-home series; the third of four this season. Minnesota travels down to Dallas and plays the Stars on January 21.

March 8 at Dallas - The Stars are all over the place this year. This game is notable for being Mike Modano's jersey retirement. Insert your own "Norm Green Sucks" yell here.

March 20 at New Jersey - Zach Parise was robbed of his "Phil Kessel" moment in New Jersey last year thanks to the NHL Lockout. This time, he should be there barring injury to take abuse from all Devils fans who haven't gotten over their captain choosing the Wild in free agency. Maybe New Jersey fans will cheer an American hero a month after the USA wins the Gold medal in men's hockey.

Probably not. There's still bad blood and stages of grief. Expect the boos (and Gold?).

Although Minnesota-New Jersey isn't on either NBC or NBC Sports Net - for that matter, neither was the scheduled November 11 game last year - this is the only game featuring the Wild that made Puck Daddy's ten "can't miss" dates of the NHL season.

For the record, Minnesota travels to Nashville October 8th and January 12th. It's an early look at former Wild forward Matt Cullen and seeing if Predators fans booing Ryan Suter is still a thing.

March 22-23 home-and-home against Detroit - The final home-and-home series features the only pair of games against the Red Wings on back to back nights. Starting with a Saturday afternoon game at the Xcel Energy Center, the action moves to Joe Louis Arena the next night. It's the beginning of a stretch where the Wild play 8 of 10 games on the road. Minnesota can put themselves in good position or falter towards the finish. This is a very key stretch of games.

Playing Detroit here is a smart move by the NHL schedulers. The Xcel Energy Center hosts the inaugural Big Ten tournament that weekend so having a game featuring the two biggest college hockey markets in B1G country makes sense.

And of course playing in Detroit on the second day of a back-to-back means Josh Harding is guaranteed a start. It's hockey law.

April 5 vs. Pittsburgh - Another benefit of playing every team at home.  Pittsburgh has made one appearance at the Xcel Energy Center - October 18, 2011 - since the last Winter Olympics (although the Penguins were scheduled to be Minnesota's Hockey Day Minnesota opponent before the Lockout canceled that plan). Regardless of your feelings about Sidney Crosby, having one of the game's biggest stars cut off from a market so often is bad practice. This is the first time the new NHL schedule makes it up to Western Conference fans.

April 13 vs. Nashville - The final game of the regular season. Hopefully it is not the final game.

Photo Credit:
Follow First Round Bust on Twitter @FRBHockey. You can also follow Nate @gopherstate where he promises not to write 2500 words about hockey in July.

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