One thing to remember as the NHL heads into the home stretch and the jockeying for playoff positioning heats up: Stanley Cups are not won or lost in February.
Also, being the best team in the league with six weeks to go in the regular season is not necessarily a good thing, because it suggests you've peaked too soon and when the inevitable lull comes, it'll happen at exactly the worst time - early in the playoffs.
It is something to think about as both of the Western Conference leaders - the Vancouver Canucks and the Detroit Red Wings - stumbled a little this week. Vancouver and Detroit were the only two teams that managed any separation at all in the West, (or until the San Jose Sharks rattled off a nice eight-game win streak to position themselves solidly in third spot), which also makes them the only teams with a margin for error with the playoffs on the horizon.
The Canucks are moseying along at .500 for about the past three weeks after losing 3-0 to the Nashville Predators last night.
As for Detroit, after eviscerating the Los Angeles Kings at the start of their California swing, they dropped a 2-1 overtime decision to Anaheim and then fell 3-1 to the surging Sharks last night.
Detroit, of course, understands how these things work better than most, based on the fact that except for last year, when they needed a post-Olympic surge to make the playoffs after an injury-filled year, they generally have a playoff berth well in hand before mid-April.
It was an issue that long-serving NHLer, (but brand-new Red Wing) Mike Modano addressed this past week. Modano is from Livonia, Mich. and playing out the final days of his NHL career with the de facto hometown Red Wings after two decades in the Minnesota-Dallas Stars' organization. Dallas was a powerhouse for many of the years Modano was there, so he's seen both sides of the equation - the need to scuttle for every point down the stretch, and the ability to make long-range playoff plans, if a post-season spot is more secure.
Given the choice, Modano says he'll opt for the latter scenario every time.
"I've been on both sides," said Modano, "and I've really enjoyed the part where you can afford a little bit of a hiccup down the stretch and still be okay. Granted, you always want to be at your best, and at a top level, but with these guys here, it seems like every night there are teams who are challenged by the ability to play the Wings, and the competition, and grading themselves of where they stand always against Detroit.
"This team's always been geared towards playoff runs and deep playoff runs, so I think they've always had the ability to kick it up a notch when they have to."
MORE FROM MO: Modano signed with the Red Wings to act as their de facto No. 3 centre but missed a big part of the year because of a wrist injury that was thought to be career threatening. Every serious injury is career threatening if you're 40 years of age and taking it year by year, but Modano returned and is slowly working himself back into playing shape, something he says is taking a little more time than he'd like.
"There are moments when you feel pretty good and there are some that remind you you've been off for 13 weeks," said Modano, who earned an assist on Tomas Holmstrom's power-play goal Thursday night, for his 10th point in 23 games. Modano's goal is to round into shape in time for post-season play, where the Red Wings project him as their third-line centre, who can play some on the second power-play unit.
"It's a day-to-day thing," continued Modano. "You just try to do what you can productively to get caught up to these guys, because they're moving pretty good and every game is magnified these days with the way the playoff races are. You just go in, trying not to do too much and being in a good position - get the puck, move it a little, and do some positive things with it as far as putting it in a good area. And obviously, short shifts in the meantime."
THE RYAN GETZLAF WATCH: The Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Getzlaf is another player trying to round himself into shape after a long injury absence. In Getzlaf's case, he broke his nose when a deflected puck skipped up into his face, causing multiple sinus cavity fractures. Getzlaf missed 15 games and then, after returning Feb. 9 versus Vancouver, managed a dozen points in his first 10 games back.
"It was a tough process because it was long and it was one of those things, where it wasn't an injury I could play through," said Getzlaf, in an interview. "I had to wait for the bones to heal and it was tough to sit back at that point.
"Coming back in the lineup was basically about trying to fit back in again because guys were playing well and doing things right. It was one of those things where you didn't want to come in and ruffle too many feathers and take too much ice time away from guys who were playing well."
Thankfully, Getzlaf says there's been no psychological fallout from the injury.
"I don't think about it at all," he said. "If I was having some annoying headaches or stuff like that, it would be harder to do, but from where I sit now, I feel great. I feel 100 per cent. When you're in that situation, you don't think about it any more. You just play."
GAME OF THE NIGHT: The Ducks have a big game at home tonight against divisional rival Dallas. Currently, Dallas is holding down ninth spot with 74 points, one ahead of Anaheim at 73. Just three points separate eight teams challenging for the final five Western Conference playoff spots, after San Jose's eight-game winning streak has moved them six points clear of fourth-place Chicago.
It is closer than ever, in other words, but the Ducks have been down this road before - two years ago, they grabbed the final playoff spot and then proceeded to knock out top-ranked San Jose in the opening round. For now, the Ducks are having to jockey for positioning without goaltender Jonas Hiller, out with dizziness and scheduled to see another specialist today. In the meantime, Dan Ellis is their starter for the foreseeable future.
"Unless you start the season off winning 15 in a row and get way out front, you're pretty much in that group," said Getzlaf. "You look up and down the standings, from three to 13, we're all pretty much in the same boat. Everybody's pushing for a playoff spot. Definitely, you've got to pay attention and win your games."
ETC ETC: The milestones just keep coming for the Nashville Predators' Blake Geoffrion, who is giving his team an important lift in trying to stay in the playoff race. When Geoffrion made his NHL debut last week, he became the league's first fourth-generation player, following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather Howie Morenz, grandfather Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion and father Danny Geoffrion. The first two are both Hall Of Famers, while his father played professionally for both Montreal and Winnipeg. Geoffrion followed by scoring his first NHL goal earlier this week in Edmonton, and then scored his first NHL game winner Thursday vs. Vancouver, on a pass from Jordin Tootoo. Getting that sort of timely fourth-line scoring production early in the third period of a scoreless tie against the division leaders is critical for a low-scoring team like Nashville. If this keeps up, Geoffrion figures to be part of the Predators' mix until such time as coach Barry Trotz regains confidence in the slumping J.P. Dumont. Geoffrion, incidentally, was born in Plantation, Fla., but grew up in Brentwood, Tenn., and is seen as a hometown hero, the first player ever from Tennessee to play in the NHL ... That was Jonathan Bernier who earned a 1-0 shutout on behalf of the Los Angeles Kings last night against the Phoenix Coyotes. Bernier played, largely because Jonathan Quick was lit up for seven by the Red Wings in his previous start. It will be interesting to see the direction Kings' coach Terry Murray goes for Saturday afternoon's matinee against the Canucks ... Even though mathematically is still seems like a stretch to think the New Jersey Devils can make the playoffs, the one thing they have going for them is games in hand on their opponents. New Jersey still has 20 games left to play; if they can stay on their amazing roll, and with the New York Rangers showing signs of a massive fade, it is not completely out of the question that they can reel someone in. More good news for the Devils: Injured forward Zach Parise began skating with the team Thursday morning for the first time since Oct. 30, or when he hurt his leg with the team 3-8-1 and sinking fast. Parise's injury compounded a slow start and kept the Devils on a downward spiral that they were only able to correct after a coaching replacement - Jacques Lemaire in for John MacLean - and this week, they finally inched their way back to 12th overall in the Eastern Conference standings, with Atlanta well within their sights at 11. Wouldn't that be a delicious irony - if they snuck in and got a first-round meeting with the Philadelphia Flyers, the team that last year, as a seventh seed, knocked out the Devils, who were a No. 2? The opportunity for payback would be oh-so-sweet.