Prior to the start of the season, the divisions of the league were re-aligned to reduce travel costs. The Patrick Division, which had heretofore been in the Clarence Campbell Conference, switched to the Prince of Wales Conference, while the Norris Division went the other way, going from the Wales Conference to the Campbell Conference. This divisional alignment existed until the 1993–94 season, at which point both the divisions and the conferences of the league were renamed to reflect geography.
The schedule and playoff format were also altered. Previously, each team played every other team four times, and the 16-team playoff format had the four divisional champions joined by 12 wild-cards; for all intents and purposes, the divisions were meaningless. Also, under the old format, teams were paired in the first round based on record (i.e., 1st vs. 16th, 2nd vs. 15th, etc.), and then re-paired in each succeeding round based on record (i.e., highest seeded first round winner vs. lowest seeded first round winner, second highest first round winner vs. second lowest first round winner, etc.).
The new format called for each team in the three five-team divisions to play their four divisional opponents eight times each (32 games) and the remaining 16 league teams three times each (48 games). In addition, each team in the six-team division was to play their five divisional opponents seven times each (35 games) and the remaining 15 league teams three times each (45 games). As to the playoffs, the top four teams in each division qualified --- no more wild-cards --- with 1st Place playing 4th Place, and 2nd Place playing 3rd Place, in the divisional semifinals; the two winners meeting in the divisional finals; followed by the conference finals and the Stanley Cup finals. This schedule and playoff arrangement continued for over a decade.
The New York Islanders led the league with 118 points, seven more than second place Edmonton Oilers. The Islanders also set a league record by winning 15 consecutive games from January 21 to February 20 although this was later eclipsed by the Pittsburgh Penguins' 17-game winning streak from March 9 to April 10, 1993. However, the Islanders 15-game winning streak was accomplished before the advent of the extra OT period in the NHL regular season. The Penguins would need to win 2 of their games in the OT period (in games 2 and 15) and would not have accomplished their streak in 1982 without the extra period, as two of their games would have ended in a tie.
The Edmonton Oilers' young superstar Wayne Gretzky broke several prestigious records, including the record of 50 goals in 50 games, set by Maurice Richard and Mike Bossy, by scoring 50 goals in only 39 games. Gretzky also broke Phil Esposito's record of 76 goals in a season with 92, his own assists record of 109 which was set the prior season with 120, and his own point total of 164 which was also set the prior season with 212. He was the first, and thus far only, player to ever score 200 points in a season. The Oilers set a record for most goals in a season with 417, in which Gretzky scored or assisted on over half.
This was the final season of the Colorado Rockies before moving to New Jersey to become the Devils. NHL play would return to Colorado in 1995, when the Avalanche won their first Stanley Cup after moving from Quebec.
The Winnipeg Jets completed one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in league history as the Jets went from nine wins and 32 points in 1980-81 to 33 wins and 80 points.
The Philadelphia Flyers become the first team to wear long pants. The idea was to create a more streamlined uniform with lighter padding, thus making the players faster. The downside was that the players hit the boards faster after being bodychecked.
Note: GP = Games played; W = Wins; L = Losses; T = Ties; GF = Goals for; GA = Goals against; Pts = Points; PIM = Penalties in minutes Note: Teams that qualified for the playoffs are highlighted in bold
The 1982 playoffs used a new format. Four teams from each division would qualify for the playoffs, and played a best-of-five semifinal round followed by a best-of-seven series to determine the division playoff champions. The Adams and Patrick winners would meet in the Wales Conference Final, while the Norris and Smythe winners played in the Campbell Conference Final. The two Conference Champions played for the Stanley Cup. With the exception of extending the first round to a best-of-seven in 1987, this format remained in place through the 1993 playoffs.
The first round of the 1982 playoffs saw three first-place teams (Edmonton, Minnesota, and Montreal) upset by fourth-place teams, a round which featured what is still the greatest comeback in NHL history: The Kings' 6–5 win over Edmonton in Game 3. After trailing 5–0 after two periods, the Kings scored five third period goals—three in the last 5:22, the final goal coming with only five seconds left in regulation. Los Angeles then scored on a face-off early in overtime, thus completing the "Miracle on Manchester".
The eventual champion New York Islanders nearly capitulated in the first round as well, losing Games 3 and 4 of their first round playoff series with Pittsburgh after crushing the Penguins in the first 2 games. In Game 5 the Islanders scored twice in the last 5 minutes to force OT and then won the series on John Tonelli's goal 6:19 into the extra session. This served as a wake-up call for New York, who lost only two more games the rest of the way on their march to third straight Stanley Cup. Their Finals opponents, the Vancouver Canucks, finished the regular season with only 77 points, defeating three teams beneath them in the standings (Calgary 75, Los Angeles 63, and Chicago 72) in the much weaker Campbell Conference.
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