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NHL features its own version of March Madness

Vancouver Canucks' Alexander Edler (23), celebrates his goal against the Phoenix Coyotes with teammates Henrik Sedin (33), Ryan Kesler (17), and Daniel Sedin (22) during the first period, Feb. 28, 2012, in Glendale, Ariz.

Ross D. Franklin/The Associated Press/Ross D. Franklin/The Associated Press

It's too bad the NCAA already took March Madness for basketball.

Hockey needs something to describe the month it is entering, and it's a bit of a stretch to believe that "the stretch" suffices.

Sounds too much like a yawn.

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On Thursday, the 1,000th game of the 2011-12 NHL season will be played when the Philadelphia Flyers are at home to the Florida Panthers. One month from Wednesday, this runaway regular season will end.

There could be – with a lot of puck luck required – as many as five Canadian teams in the postseason, or as few as one, the Vancouver Canucks. A fair, if rather disheartening, bet would be that there will be just two, one from the Western Conference, Vancouver, and one from the Eastern Conference, either the Ottawa Senators or the Winnipeg Jets. Neither the Toronto Maple Leafs nor the Calgary Flames have conceded, it should be pointed out in fairness, though chances are slim for both.

It has been a remarkable season, one dominated more by a single issue than a single player. It was exactly one year ago that researchers at Boston University announced they had found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of former NHL enforcer Bob Probert. And exactly one year ago, as well, that the legendary Red Fisher of the Montreal Gazette suggested that, as it was beginning to look as if Sidney Crosby might not return in time for the 2011 playoffs, then "the Stanley Cup champions should have an asterisk alongside their name." This year would require a double asterisk, as the best player in the game is still not back in the game.

It is, however, still an NHL season, with its own highs and lows and small amusements, some of which might be noted as the league enters this final month of regular-season action.

Thank you, Randy Carlyle: Soon players will be standing in front of their stalls, mouthing that old saw that "if we just stick to our system …" Mercifully, new Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle put the boots to the myth that there's anything particularly complicated about this game when he came in, won his very first game, and later said all he did was tell "the players to skate, to be themselves."

How Quickly It Can All Slip: In February, Erik Karlsson, the Ottawa Senators' 21-year-old defenceman, was player of the month, the hottest scorer in the league and the runaway favourite for the Norris Trophy as the league's top defender. Judging by his sloppy, undisciplined play in March, especially during Ottawa's 4-2 loss Sunday to the Panthers, he's looking more like a favourite to become a healthy scratch.

Get Rida da Coach: It has been said that in the era of one-way contracts and salary cap, the general manager of a hockey club is down to one sure-fire attention-getting tool: firing the coach. It helped the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2009. But this season is proving buyer be wary on that one. The Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals, Anaheim Ducks and Montreal Canadiens all switched coaches and all may as well not have bothered. The Los Angeles Kings fired their coach and found themselves. The St. Louis Blues changed their ways so dramatically that Ken Hitchcock will be a finalist for coach of the year. It will be up to Randy Carlyle to prove the last-ditch remedy is still worth a desperate GM trying.

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Where did he come from? If you go back even a month and check the various Hart Trophy predictions for MVP, you will find such names as Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks, Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators. … On Monday, the name at the top of the scoring race was Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning, with 80 points, nine more goals than the next top goal scorer, and with 47 goals, likely the only player to break the marquee 50-goal mark this season.

Considering that only two weeks ago the Lightning were "sellers" heading into the trade deadline, if Stamkos can somehow lift this surging team into the playoffs over the coming month, he should be handed the Hart without the necessity of a vote.

Such is March Madness during what may well go down as the most unpredictable, unknowable season in NHL history.

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