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The Globe and Mail

No Stanley Cup guarantees at the Christmas break

First, a gentle reminder about what the NHL standings at Christmas mean. Nothing. Or next to nothing. Even as they collectively ponder the lump of coal in their Christmas stockings, the NHL's playoff also-rans will stubbornly insist that all is not yet lost.

With Boxing Day just around the corner and more than half the season remaining, there is time (for some anyway) to make up the necessary ground in a tightly contested league and qualify for postseason play.

On the basis of the standings at this time last season and the NHL's current age of parity, there is some measure of truth to that bold sentiment.

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At the break a year ago, the two teams that eventually played for the Eastern Conference championship, the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers, were ninth and 13th in the standings.

In the Western Conference, two conference playoff semi-finalists, the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings, were ninth and 10th at Christmas.

Needless to say, all four teams eventually wormed their way into the playoff picture - at the expense of the Atlanta Thrashers, New York Rangers, Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars, all of whom were in the top eight but eventually fell out of contention.

Could that sort of reversal happen again? Why not? It has been a topsy-turvy start to the season, with all kinds of teams wildly defying expectations - good and bad.

As the NHL heads into its annual two-day holiday break, seven of the 14 teams that missed out last season are either fully entrenched in a playoff spot or within two points of eighth place, the demarcation for postseason play.

Meanwhile, one of the primary contenders last season, the New Jersey Devils, are playing as badly as they did in the days when Wayne Gretzky disparaged them as a "Mickey Mouse operation." The Devils were the No. 1 team in the NHL at Christmas last year, with 53 points in 35 games, en route to a 103-point season and the No. 2 seed in the East (all before Ilya Kovalchuk joined the team).

This year, after putting up just 20 points in their first 33 games (and giving the New York Islanders a serious challenge for the top pick in the 2011 entry draft), the Devils would need 83 points from their final 49 games to duplicate their result from last season.

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Okay, not going to happen.

Meanwhile, in the West, the Chicago Blackhawks and the San Jose Sharks are in a group of eight teams grouped from fifth to 12th and separated by just three points. Playoffs are not a guarantee for either the Sharks or Blackhawks, who ran 1-2 in the West regular-season standings a season ago.

Chicago's place relative to unexpectedly competitive Atlanta is a telling illustration of just how unpredictable the season has been. Just about the most clever thing said about the Thrashers going into the 2010-11 season involved the Stanley Cup hangover and how they might handle its negative effects?

After all, four regulars from the reigning champion Blackhawks ended up in Atlanta, in Chicago's postseason salary-cap player purge. Few anticipated the four - Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager or Brent Sopel - would make that much of a difference to the Thrashers' won-loss record, given how Atlanta is a perpetual Southeast Division also-ran, a team that never amounted to much, no matter who might be wearing their colours. The preseason line, according to, had them as 80-1 long shots to win the Stanley Cup. Even the Edmonton Oilers (75-1) had shorter odds.

Instead, Ladd filled an important leadership void and was named the team's captain, Byfuglien is a Norris Trophy candidate, and coach Craig Ramsey a solid favourite for Jack Adams Award consideration. Atlanta is jockeying with the Washington Capitals for top spot in the division, after finishing 38 points behind the Caps in the 2009-10 standings - and their biggest problem is how to sign the two aforementioned new cornerstones to contract extensions, or risk losing them as pending unrestricted free agents.

Chicago, by contrast, is immersed in another goaltending controversy (Corey Crawford is the new de facto No. 1 ahead of Marty Turco) and it won't get either Patrick Kane or Marian Hossa back from the injured list until after Christmas. The Blackhawks have already lost more home games this season (nine) than they did all of last season (eight).

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Dallas, meanwhile, is pushing Detroit for top spot in the Western Conference, after two years out of the playoffs, and they're doing it in against a backdrop of ownership uncertainty that prevents general manager Joe Nieuwendyk from doing much in terms of long-range planning.

The Stars were on an 11-2-2 run as of Wednesday and had a sparkling 10-0-2 home record in the past 12 games, even if their crowds rival Atlanta's for the lowest in the league. The Phoenix Coyotes (29-10-2) proved last season that bums in the seats aren't necessary for home-ice success, a recipe that the Stars have co-opted as they try to rise from worst to first in the Pacific division.

Apart from a sellout in their season-opener, Dallas's best crowd came this past Tuesday (17,805), when the Montreal Canadiens paid a visit. The vast majority have been under 15,000. The hope is that interest will perk up once the Dallas Cowboys' NFL season mercifully comes to an end.

Accordingly, despite a conference-high 45 points through Wednesday, Stars coach Marc Crawford understands that nothing can be taken for granted. After all, they were in a playoff position at Christmas last year but watching from the sidelines when the postseason began.

"The standings help, because it's just so tight and that's not lost on our guys," said Crawford, following the 5-2 victory over the Canadiens.

It is a sentiment that, along with obligatory sugar plums, should dance in the heads of every NHL club this weekend as they settle their heads for a short winter's nap.

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