The NHL has gone wild. Well, for the postseason format at least.
While the change, driven by division realignment, to the qualification and seeding system was slight, the final week of the regular season has slanted a little differently than in the past.
Loosely following what other leagues -- the NFL and MLB -- have done for decades now, the NHL has added wild cards to the playoff pool. Postseason qualification is the same in that eight teams from each conference are included, but it has led to essentially two separate races. Competition for the top three spots in each division is one, with the leftovers jockeying for two wild cards in each conference.
The Minnesota Wild locked up the first one in the West on Tuesday, leaving the Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes to scrap for the last spot. Dallas lost 3-1 to Columbus on Wednesday night and leads idle Phoenix by two points. The Stars and Coyotes play on Sunday night to finish the regular season.
"Ideally, you'd probably like to have it wrapped up," Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski said. "It's good to have these intense games where you need to win and get points, and you need to play a certain way because that's the way the playoffs are going to be. We've just got to keep grinding away."
Detroit and Columbus clinched the East wild cards on Wednesday night.
Also the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens are locked into a first-round playoff matchup.
The Red Wings sealed their spot by recording a point in a 4-3 overtime loss at Pittsburgh. It's the NHL-best 23rd consecutive playoff appearance for the Red Wings, who played much of the season without several key players due to injuries.
The Blue Jackets set a franchise record with 42 wins, beating the previous mark from their only other playoff season in 2008-09.
In the West, the Anaheim Ducks clinched their second straight Pacific Division title with a 5-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday night.
The Sharks are locked into a first-round playoff rematch with the Los Angeles Kings, who eliminated them in a bruising seven-game series in the second round last spring. The California rivals are meeting in the postseason for the third time in four years.
As has been the case for the past 35 years, the Stanley Cup playoff bracket will again include 16 teams. But here's the twist: The top three teams in each division make up the first 12 teams, with the remaining four spots filled by the next two highest finishers in each conference based on regular-season record regardless of division. It is possible for one division in each conference to send five teams to the playoffs while the other sends just three, which will be the case if Dallas beats out Phoenix.