Wayne Gretzky once argued that there are actually five seasons in any given hockey year: the exhibition season, which means nothing; the regular season, which runs to the trade deadline; the stretch season, which runs to the end of regular play; the playoff season, which runs to the end of the third round; and the Stanley Cup final.
But he missed one.
There are actually six seasons, and we are in the midst of the most curious and unknowable of all. For lack of another name, it could be called the fake season, for it is all about false impressions, phony scores and bogus interpretations.
It is a time of the hockey year when every new day begins with raised eyebrows. Detroit Red Wings lose 10-3 to the St. Louis Blues. Montreal falls 7-0 to the Boston Bruins. Ottawa Senators shut out the Washington Capitals 2-0. The Calgary Flames and New Jersey Devils are surely headed for next year's Stanley Cup.
Thursday night, one of the sports highlight channels projected a 100-point season for the Toronto Maple Leafs if only James Reimer had been playing regularly before the all-star break.
Sure, and pigs will skate.
It is the time of "what ifs" and "if onlys," a month or so when common sense and logic become healthy scratches and, instead, hockey dresses hindsight up in words that can fool even the most discerning.
If only Toronto had Reimer in goal and had never let Nazem Kadri twiddle his shootout stick in the minors. If only Jay Feaster had been general manager of the Flames from opening night. If only Ottawa's trade for goaltender Craig Anderson had been done in November instead of February. If only Jacques Lemaire had taken over the coaching duties earlier in New Jersey. If only St. Louis's T.J. Oshie had been left at home months ago for his carousing….
There's an Italian punk band called Vanilla Sky that had a minor hit, Fake Season, that could serve as a theme song for some of what is happening these days in the National Hockey League:
Days are getting longer, spring is on its way
So why inside my heart are these walls still cold and grey
You said I was the one, maybe you were wrong
And now in this moment I feel the warmth is gone
Maybe you were wrong.
There are words in the song for just about every NHL situation, it seems. Colorado Avalanche could dance to "Every promise is gone, we've lost everything we had;" Atlanta Thrashers could keep time with "And now the birds are flying away with all my hopes …"
However, it is also true that "hope springs eternal," and nowhere is that more in evidence than in Ottawa. The Senators, with nothing to lose but a top draft choice, have been on such a roll that there are those who, as late as January loudly cursing the team, now say the general manager is a genius, the coach should stay and all the problems have been solved by young players and a new goaltender.
Perhaps this is all true. Far more likely, however, is that the Senators are a prime example of what happens every fake season in hockey, when teams long out of the race often pose the greatest danger to good teams hoping to coast, healthy, into the opening round of the playoffs. While the players on the best teams have their thoughts elsewhere and players on better teams are caught up in hanging on to their playoff hopes, players on the lesser teams are fixated on nailing a job down for the present and gaining a chance for next fall.
The Senators, to the players' credit, have moved from dead last to fourth last, now threatening to catch and overtake the New York Islanders. They have managed this boost with Anderson in goal and a bunch of farm-team players eager to take ice time that once went to NHLers cast off by the team before the trade deadline.
Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa is expected to have eight former U.S. college players in the lineup, the latest being 21-year-old Stephane Da Costa of Paris, France, via Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.
As Ottawa Citizen beat writer Allen Panzeri said: "Maybe they should forget about hockey and challenge the Leafs to a game of Jeopardy."
There is much to be admired about this spunk, even if it does cost the Senators a chance at one of the top two draft picks.
But it should not be misread any more than the Calgary surge since Christmas can be misread, any more than, almost annually, a fake-season rush by the Leafs is misinterpreted as a sign that the struggles are behind and Stanley Cup glory lies shortly ahead.
It isn't that simple. The beauty of an 82-game season - even if many of us believe it is at least 10 games too long - is that teams end up roughly where they deserve. Calgary and Toronto are both middle of the pack and have work to do, as does Montreal, even by reaching the playoffs. Ottawa is a bottom dweller and has an enormous task ahead of it that is not instantly erased by the presence of Craig Anderson, though he of course will help. Just as another top draft pick and time will help in Edmonton.
What is worth taking from this fake season is the play of the Vancouver Canucks: focused on the moment, still winning when victories are no longer needed.
A good sign indeed, as hockey is on the verge of returning to another mini-season that truly counts.