In his weekly notebook, Eric Duhatschek ponders the chances of all five Pacific Division teams making the NHL playoffs, pays homage to Teemu Selanne and wonders what the Washington Capitals' line-up will look like come playoff time.
Trivia answer to the question many have asked lately in the context of the NHL's ultra-tight Western Conference playoff race: Has there ever been a time when every single team in a division has made the playoffs?
Answer: Yes, three times, but with an important disclaimer. It happened long ago, first in the days of the Original 18, or just before the WHA merger. In both the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons, all four Patrick Division teams (New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, Atlanta Flames and New York Rangers) made the playoffs in an era when it was virtually impossible not to make them; and all the talk about meaningless regular seasons was real.
The only time that five teams in a single division qualified for postseason play was 1980-81, when the Adams sent all of its squads - the Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Minnesota North Stars, Quebec Nordiques and Toronto Maple Leafs - to the dance.
That was also a year when the NHL desperately needed realigning, with the Calgary Flames playing a single inaugural season in the Patrick Division, instead of Atlanta, where the team had previously been located. By the following season, Calgary had been placed in its rightful geographic home, the Smythe, and the playoff format was revamped so that only the top four teams in each division qualified. In the now 21-team league, the question thus became moot.
Naturally, the subject comes up now because some 30 years later there is actually a chance that five teams in the ultra-competitive Pacific Division could make the playoffs - unprecedented in a 30-team league, with an unbalanced schedule that obliges teams to play six times within its own division.
With Calgary falling off the pace, the Western Conference playoff race is down to nine teams - five from the Pacific, three from the Central, and Vancouver in the Northwest, which is also running away with the league and conference title. The problem, for the Pacific contenders, is that they play each other so frequently down the stretch - a mixed blessing if there ever was one.
On the plus side, the division is so close that it seems almost every one of these games ends up heading to overtime - Thursday it was San Jose-Los Angeles, Wednesday Anaheim-Dallas. If every game divides three points rather than two, it could happen.
On the down side, both the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks show no signs of fading. Nashville, especially, has been extremely resilient of late, knocking off Anaheim 5-4 Thursday night in the return of Ducks' goalie Jonas Hiller. The Preds get Detroit and Vancouver at home next week, a real litmus test for them, but even if they falter they can always rely on a softish schedule at the end, featuring games against Atlanta, Columbus and St. Louis. With 90 points already and still seven games to play, it's hard not to imagine the Predators in the playoffs.
Chicago? Well, suddenly Saturday's date with the Ducks' travelling road show looms critical, given that they then head out on the road for a back-to-back set with Detroit and Boston and then finish up with the Red Wings home-and-home to end the season. Detroit isn't playing its best hockey right now, but if some of their injured stars - most notably Pavel Datsyuk - return, they will pose a major threat. And, in Hockeytown, where the Blackhawks-Red Wings' rivalry has come alive in the last two years, there would nothing sweeter than ending Chicago's hopes of defending the Stanley Cup before it could even get started by denying them a spot in the playoffs altogether.
SEEING STARS: Every team has a make-or-break stretch and Dallas's is coming up right now, starting Saturday in Nashville with a stretch of five road games against teams standing between the Stars and a postseason berth: Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim. The Stars lost a soul-sapping heartbreaker to Anaheim at home the other night, another one of those games in which there was a three-point swing thanks to the ageless Teemu Selanne. Selanne tied the game late and the Ducks won in OT, earning two points instead of zero, and leaving the Stars with just the one. The Ducks have managed that trick four times in their past 19 games, twice against Dallas, twice against Calgary, and in every game Selanne was responsible for the tying goal. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that is the first time in NHL history that any player has scored four times in the final three minutes of a game to tie things up.