At midseason, tight division races go hand in hand with return of fans

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It is just about midseason in the National Hockey League. After the league's fourth lockout in 20 years shortened this 2012-13 regular season to only 48 games, many fans were left questioning if they would ever return to the sport.

If the league experiences a fifth lockout anytime soon, those fans may never return. But for now, they are back and filling arena seats in impressive fashion.

This season, 16 of the NHL's 30 teams are averaging sellouts at their home games. The highest-attended home games are those of the Chicago Blackhawks (surprise anyone?). Currently their home venue, the famed United Center, is filling 109 percent of its seating capacity.

Five more teams are within 3 percent attendance of an average sellout.

Some teams though, naturally have trouble filling their seats with fans even in a normal season. The Phoenix Coyotes for example, are only averaging 76.9 percent of their arena's capacity. This is mainly because of the fact that Jobing.com Arena is located in Glendale, Ariz., about 20 minutes from downtown Phoenix. It's unfortunate that a playoff-contending team only fills three-fourths of its arena.

Meanwhile the Islanders have less of an excuse for their alarmingly low attendance. They play in New York City, and are only averaging 79 percent arena capacity. In an area so densely populated, that really is a shocking number.

But those two notorious examples aside, this season has marked the return of the hockey fan. You can credit that to the highly competitive hockey that fans have seen since the first puck dropped on opening night.

There haven't been division and conference races this tight in while. In the east standings, the No. 2 team is separated from the No. 8 team by only seven points. In the west it's even more insane: The No. 3 team is separated from the No. 14 team by only six points. There are just not enough playoff spots to go around. It's a virtual lock that there will be several playoff-worthy teams left out of the chase for the Stanley Cup.

Conference and division races this close will require our attention for the full season - even if lockout-shortened. Fans really don't know what will happen over the next 25 games.

But for now NHL is once again thriving, and some of the most passionate fans in sports are reuniting with their beloved teams.