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The Globe and Mail

Path to playoffs jam-packed with competitive teams

The Ottawa Senators, who hosted the Montreal Canadiens Thursday, were the only team to advance past the the first round of the playoffs last season.


Maybe they should call them "six-pointers."

After all, they call important games between division rivals in the NHL "four-pointers" – the suggestion being one team wins two points while the other loses a potential two points.

It's hardly pure math, but it does get the idea across that such games can carry great import once a playoff position is at stake.

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But what about when Canadian teams face Canadian teams? Especially when they are in a battle for a rare chance at a championship.

Last season, only one of the seven Canadian teams, the Ottawa Senators, advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs. No Canadian team has reached the Stanley Cup final since the Vancouver Canucks in 2011. No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993.

Judging by what we've seen as teams near the 50-game mark, the 21-year drought isn't likely to be broken.

But, as Senators owner Eugene Melnyk put it earlier this week, if you just get to the playoffs "anything can happen."

To say the Sens are in tough is to put it lightly. The Eastern Conference has 16 teams battling for eight playoff spots. Going into Thursday's home game against the Canadiens – won 5-4 in overtime by the Habs in a sensationally fluctuating match – there were a stunning nine teams within six points of each other, covering playoff spots No. 5 (Toronto Maple Leafs, 53 points) through 13 (Carolina Hurricanes, 47 points).

Wedged in tighter than a rush-hour subway were Philadelphia Flyers (52 points), Washington Capitals (52), New York Rangers (51), Detroit Red Wings (50), Ottawa (50), New Jersey Devils (50) and Columbus Blue Jackets (48).

(Montreal's two-point overtime victory and Ottawa's one point Thursday merely add to the crunch.)

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To potentially tighten matters further, Carolina, Columbus and Detroit all have games in hand when compared to their competitors for the two Eastern wild-card positions.

With points so critical, no wonder one long-time NHL observer suggests Canadian teams should take turns losing to each other in overtime. That way the winner would get two points, a "real win," as opposed to a "shootout win," which could decide a wild-card spot, and the loser would still grab a potentially valuable one point.

And that, of course, is exactly what happened Thursday night in Ottawa.

The situation in the Western Conference is somewhat different, though could still tighten over the next 30-plus games. With only 14 teams battling for the eight playoff spots, it is mathematically easier, but the struggles of three of the four Canadian teams somewhat ease the pressure on the American hopefuls. As of Thursday morning, the bottom three spots were held by Winnipeg Jets (45 points), Calgary Flames (38) and Edmonton Oilers (35).

Still, the Canucks' seventh-place position (57 points) is no guarantee they will be in the postseason, not with the Minnesota Wild only two points back and Phoenix Coyotes six back with two games in hand as of Thursday.

No wonder the Senators some time ago removed the standings board that once graced the team's dressing area. Over the last few seasons, the race for those final two playoff spots have been as distracting to the players as they have been exciting for the fans.

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Michel Therrien, head coach of the Canadiens, says there's no point in getting caught up in the standings in January. "It's a long season," he says. "We're not even close to the playoffs."

Ottawa captain Jason Spezza says he hasn't yet started to pay attention.

"If you do," he says, "one night, you'll have a heart attack and next night, you might jump four spots without playing a game.

"It's good, though. It's what [the league] wanted. It's competitive balance – especially with the wild card."

Spezza's teammate, Clarke MacArthur, thinks there is nothing quite so exciting as seeing multiple teams bunched up around the postseason-cutoff point. "You're on the back nine now," he says, "working your way toward the playoffs."

The Senators can only hope the analogy is an accidental one.

The last thing they want to start thinking about as the end of the season approaches, however slowly, is golf.

Follow me on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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