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.
It also represented a six-point swing with each of the two teams currently breathing down their necks in ninth and 10th spot, Dallas and Calgary. If the Ducks make it, it'll be because of the cardiac nature of those comebacks.
Selanne, meanwhile, had two more goals in the loss to Nashville, giving him 25 goals for the season (in only 65 games). At the age of 40, he is now 11th in the overall scoring race and - as noted in a column back in December, likely to become only the fourth player in NHL history to score 80 or more points after turning 40. Gordie Howe did it twice; Johnny Bucyk once.
Nice company and hopefully a sign that Selanne will push his retirement plans back another year. Makes no sense to leave now, when he can still dominate play at times.
ROAD KILL: Hiller, the Ducks' goaltender who'd carried them at different stages of the season, had a rough outing in his return to the lineup Thursday, after missing 15 games with vertigo and/or dizziness. He was roughed up early for three goals by Nashville, looked rusty and mercifully got the hook from coach Randy Carlyle. With Dan Ellis and Ray Emery both playing okay in goal for the Ducks, it will be interesting to see when - or if - they go back to Hiller, with so much on the line here down the stretch.
THE RACE IS ON: For an award that the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos appeared to have in his hip pocket back in the last week of January, or just before the NHL all-star break. It was Jan. 26, and Stamkos was running away with the Rocket Richard trophy, as the NHL's goal-scoring leader. He had 38, Sidney Crosby was second with 32, and from there, it dropped down to Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin, deadlocked at 27. But Stamkos has hit a dry spell of late - only three goals in his past 19 games, 43 overall right now, which is just one more than the Ducks' surging Corey Perry, who has moved up to second spot with 42 goals, having scored 17 times in that span. And Daniel Sedin, at 40, has a shot at the crown as well. Stamkos is pressing a little - as he did once earlier in the season, when he went into an early December funk as the team toured Western Canada. It doesn't help that Tampa has been playing without two top-six forwards, Steve Downie and Ryan Malone, both out with injuries, which has permitted teams to focus strictly on Stamkos and Martin St. Louis for shutdown purposes. Downie could return as early as tonight, the beginning of a home-and-home with Carolina.
HURRICANE WATCH: Speaking of Carolina, Hurricanes' goaltender Cam Ward probably won't get a lot of Vezina Trophy attention this year, just because his stats are middle of the pack. But there is little doubt that even as Eric Staal has had another fine year, and Jeff Skinner has been a revelation as an NHL rookie, without Ward, the Hurricanes wouldn't be in the playoff hunt.
CAP MINDING: The Washington Capitals pass through Ottawa and Montreal tonight and tomorrow, completing a six-game road trip that also began in Montreal back on the 15th - and with a lineup that will bear only a reasonable facsimile to the one they hope to open the playoffs with. For starters, both Alex Ovechkin and Jason Arnott, figure to be back by next weekend, and thus get in a week's worth of game action before postseason starts. There is the matter of sorting out a starting netminder - Michal Neuvirth gets the call vs. Ottawa, Semyon Varlamov is expected to go Saturday vs. the Habs on Hockey Night In Canada. Injuries have limited Varlamov to just 24 appearances for the Caps this season, but he has 19 games of NHL playoff experience under his belt over the past two years - a cumulative 10-9 record and a respectable 2.49 goals-against average. Given that Washington's commitment to defence in those two playoffs cannot compare to the more responsible style of play they've adopted this year, you'd have to think Varlamov will get the same consideration that Jose Theodore did a year ago - a chance to start, but knowing that he's probably on a short leash and needs to be good right off the get-go. The one lingering question in Washington is the same one they're asking about Crosby in Pittsburgh: What are the chances that the concussed Mike Green will be available for postseason play? Green, a two-time Norris Trophy finalist, has just 24 points in 49 games and has missed 18 of the past 20 games, as a result of two separate incidents - one in which he got hit in the head by a puck (Feb. 6 vs. Pittsburgh) and then soon after his return, when he was hit by Rangers' rookie Derek Stepan. Did he come back too soon? Who knows? But the Caps are taking their time this time and stressing that the most important thing is for Green to get completely healthy, same as they're saying in Pittsburgh with Crosby. Ideally, the Caps would like to get him for their final two games of the season, a home-and-home with Florida.