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Kovacevic: NHL alignment a starry sight

| Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The best the Penguins could have hoped to cull from the NHL's sweeping realignment was the status quo. Stay with their rivals. Stay within the U.S. border. Stay with what they and their fans know works best.

Well, everyone got all that and the Washington Capitals.

And there are debates over this?

Really, from the moment commissioner Gary Bettman walked into the media room Monday night at the NHL board of governors' meetings and announced the new structure, I've dug hard to find negatives. For the home team. For other teams. For the sport. Best I can come up with is that the Penguins' travel costs could rise by the rough equivalent of Craig Adams' salary.

It's a remarkable achievement, this realignment, not only in its relative ease — the governors met on this for an hour when they expected it would take the full two days — but also for its long-term dynamics.

And long-term is the only way to view this. Anyone comparing the strength of various teams within the new conferences, for example, is being absurdly short-sighted. It was a few months ago that the Indianapolis Colts looked like one of the Steelers' great challenges. It was July that the Pirates were in first place. It's close to Christmas, and not even Mike Yeo thought the Minnesota Wild would own the NHL's top record.

Performances come and go, but rivalries persist.

The Penguins couldn't have handpicked better conference mates than all of their current Atlantic Division rivals — Philadelphia, New Jersey and the two New York teams — while adding Washington and Carolina. All have long played an entertaining style, except, of course, the perpetually comatose Devils. All have a playoff history with the Penguins. All but four have a Staal brother, for crying out loud.

Sure, Buffalo or Columbus would have been more fun than the Hurricanes, but that's getting picky.

Really, I'd have been fine with just keeping the Penguins and Flyers together. Good for David Morehouse, the Penguins' president, and Peter Luukko, his Philadelphia counterpart, for pushing publicly and behind the scenes to ensure that. You should know that many other teams wanted it differently.

If this realignment process proved anything, it's that the Pennsylvania teams carry some clout.

"I wouldn't say we called our shots," Morehouse said when I raised the point. "But I do think a franchise like ours, with the success we've had on and off the ice, we can lead by example. We've shown it by winning, with our attendance, with our ratings. And the Flyers have done a lot of the same things."

There's much more to like.

The top four teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs, and from there, pair up for the first two rounds based on regular-season finishes. Imagine how those regular-season meetings will stand out. Imagine the additional hype, intensity and fallout. Imagine more Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin. Or better yet, more of Ovechkin bouncing off Evgeni Malkin. What now are called four-point games will soon feel like eight-point games.

Most of the criticisms I've heard have been about the first two playoff rounds being confined within the conferences. Better teams in other conferences might be left out, some complain. Two great teams might face each other in the second round.

OK, and?

NHL history, including that of the Penguins, is littered with blah conference finals. When you play three best-of-seven rounds just for the right to play another, there's going to be a dud in there somewhere. Doesn't matter if that comes first or third.

The overall schedule is far fairer, too. People in Detroit, Columbus, Nashville and Minnesota are ecstatic over staying closer to home. The Red Wings, for decades now, have been an Eastern time zone team playing in the Western Conference. That illustrious franchise deserved better.

And hey, how about the impact on new fans — that's half of the base in Pittsburgh, per the Penguins' studies — no longer having to cut and paste the standings near playoff time to see the real picture?

Or guaranteeing that season-ticket holders in every city get to see their favorite opponent at least once?

I'll take a couple more sightings of Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar, Anaheim's Corey Perry and Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, thanks. Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers' brilliant No. 1 overall draft pick this past summer, won't be playing Pittsburgh at all this winter.

In Winnipeg a couple of months ago, I met a family with two young children who drove six hours from Regina, Saskatchewan, and were all decked out in Penguins gear. The boy explained they'd be Jets fans some other day but that they were there that night to see "Sidney Crosby's team."

Hockey fans are funny like that. They love to hate a great rival, but they love to love the sport, too.

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