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As of Friday, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference had already been determined, and six of eight were settled out West. Those final two teams and all eight first-round matchups were left to be decided over the weekend, with Sunday’s lone game _ Ottawa at Boston _ potentially holding the last piece of the puzzle.

“We think that’s phenomenal,” Bettman said. “That’s why our first round is off the charts in terms of being compelling, grueling, entertaining, exciting. Our competitive balance, we think is the best in sports _ certainly the best we have ever had _ but I don’t think anything compares to it.

“Every game matters because the races are that close. There are no nights that are easy nights that you can write off, because a couple of points may be the difference in making the playoffs.”

Which only seems to create more buzz for the league.

While Bettman says the NHL has no current plans to expand or relocate any franchises _ not counting the New York Islanders, who are gearing up for a move from Long Island to Brooklyn in a few years _ the league seems ready to hold multiple outdoor games outside of the traditional New Year’s Day Winter Classic.

No official announcement has been made, and Bettman wasn’t willing to issue one on Friday, but it is believed that six outdoor games will be played next season, including two in Yankee Stadium, and one in the warmth of Southern California in Dodger Stadium.

More teams will be able to take part in the experience, and those that have already served as the host are clamoring to do it again. Then there are the cities such as Kansas City, Quebec City and Seattle that would like to have an NHL team of their own.

There is still work to be done if the NHL will again shut down the season so its players can take part in next year’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Negotiations are ongoing, and hardly easy.

Issues such as taking a break midseason _ one year after a lengthy lockout _ insurance, travel, accommodations, and major differences in time zones are all hurdles in the way of a deal.

Player interest in going back to the Olympics is strong, especially among Russian players who would like to be able to go home to play. The NHL’s business relationship with NBC, which will televise the Games in the U.S., is a positive as far as whether a deal can be worked out to go.

“We think it’s good for NBC and CBC (in Canada) and gives us a greater comfort level that we’re going to be properly carried and promoted,” Bettman said.

One option that isn’t on the table is having ice hockey shifted to the Summer Olympics program.

“The IOC has no interest in doing that. It will never see the light of day,” Bettman said. “If they want the world’s best hockey players to go, we have to reach an accommodation. We have never asked for money. It’s never been about that. We understand why it’s good for hockey, but it’s not as good in some places as others.”